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Starving for Love

Recognizing and understanding eating disorders in children

As pastor's children, we weren't allowed to play with Barbie dolls or take dance lessons or look at fashion magazines. Mom was a nutritionist; she knew about eating disorders. And she had decided, long before we were born, that we wouldn't get them.

So we were homeschooled and forced to attend church and taught that only inner beauty mattered, and by the age of 13, I was so severely anorexic, nurses couldn't believe I was still alive.

A Family Affair

While it wasn't anything that my parents did, necessarily, that caused my hunger for love, there were also things that they didn't do which affected my decision to starve myself.

After all, while secular organizations today say eating disorders are a disease, not an illness, a result, not a choice, I believe, in fact, that eating disorders are very much a spiritually influenced decision. And while I didn't know about anorexia nervosa, I knew I was unhappy. That I had little or no attention from my father, a mother who didn't allow me any independence or choice, and an address that was constantly changing due to my father's job.

I was lonely, insecure, and desperate for affirmation and control: all factors which feed an eating disorder.

According to a survey conducted by SELF magazine in 2008, 65 percent of the female population battles a form of disordered eating. Another 10 percent displays symptoms consistent with clinical eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

Furthermore, government data in 2009 showed that children under 12 were the fastest-growing percentage of patients hospitalized for eating disorders, and adolescent girls accounted for 90 percent of all admissions with eating disorders.

In other words, as author Mary Pipher states, "To treat eating disorders is to treat our culture."

Defining the Disorders

According to leading experts, there are three basic clinical eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia is the refusal to eat. An anorexic desires to numb feelings of anxiety, stress, abuse, and conflict. Low self-esteem, genetics, and poor body-image play a role in the development of the illness, but it can quickly escalate into an obsession with control.

Bulimia often stems from the same issues, yet while anorexics starve themselves, bulimics over-eat and then purge, usually by vomiting. The food serves as a narcotic, to deal with every-day issues, and the purging releases the guilt of over-indulgence.

Binge Eating Disorder is similar to bulimia in that the individual overeats to the point of being uncomfortable. But unlike bulimia, the binging is not followed by purging.

We live in a fast-food nation that idealizes skinny bodies. As a result, the majority of us struggle with disordered eating (EDNOS, or eating disorders not otherwise specified), whether we realize it or not.

Some of us are Calorie Prisoners, terrified of gaining weight. We tend to label food as good or bad, and battle extreme guilt if we indulge in something that's off-limits.

Others are Secret Eaters who sneak junk food at home, in the car, or in bed.

Career Dieters don't know how to eat without a menu-plan.

Calorie Purgers obsess with removing unwanted calories from their diets.

Then there is the Food Addict, who uses food as a means of soothing stress or anger, or to celebrate joyous events.

Other disorders include Orthorexia, the fixation or obsession with healthy or "righteous" eating. Pregorexia is extreme dieting and exercising while pregnant, in order to avoid gaining the recommended weight. Anorexia Athletica is an addiction to exercise. Drunkorexia is the restriction of food intake in order to reserve those calories for alcohol and binge drinking. And Diabulimia is when individuals with Type 1 diabetes deliberately administer less insulin than necessary for the purpose of weight loss.

"On any given day, nearly 40 percent of American women are on a diet," writes Jenny Deam in Women's Health Magazine. "The weight-worry gun is loaded early: By the time they reach age 10, 80 percent of girls fret that they're fat. Their main 'thinspiration,' according to experts: the ultra-slim starlets glorified in popular culture."

GRASP-ing the Soul

In spite of the many definitions of disordered eating, experts agree it isn't about the food. Rather, it's about the issues behind the food, driving someone to use food as a narcotic or as a tool for self-abuse.

I recently release my second book: Chasing Silhouettes: How to Help a Loved One Battling an Eating Disorder, with Dr. Gregory Jantz. In it, Brookhaven Hospital chaplain Bernard Hubbard explains how eating disorders—and their subsequent recovery—stem from the soul.

"The root always produces the fruit," says Hubbard. "The root of the disorder is in the soul (mind, will, emotions), and expresses itself through the body."

Hubbard believes the illness plants itself within the soul through a series of unpleasant words, events, or negative thoughts.

"This seed then grows into a false belief system, and becomes the person's reality." As the negativity is allowed to continue, the emotional pain intensifies, and the eating disorder becomes a 'drug of choice' to cope with, control, or divert the pain.

"I have seen how medication and therapy do help with the symptoms and working through the facts of their lives," says Hubbard. Yet when it comes to true healing, he adds, "They must deal with the root of the disorder—the negative thoughts that G.R.A.S.P. their soul."

In order to walk in renewal, Hubbard believes, one must replace facts with truth: Guilt with no guilt; Rejection with acceptance; Abuse with the knowledge that they are, in fact, loved; Shame with righteousness; and Pity with knowing that, in God, they are truly valuable.

Yet the only way to make the truth sink in is through God's Word. "The Scriptures are the only tools I know that can completely change a person's heart," he says. "Meditating on them daily is the best medication for the soul."

A Cry for Love

As a little girl, all I wanted was for my parents to enter my bedroom and sit on my bed and ask me what was wrong.

We didn't know how to communicate. We were raised in a Christian home that believed pastors' kids (us) were seen and not heard, and I desperately wanted to be heard.

The truth was, however, that my parents had their own issues they were dealing with, and the eating disorder wasn't their fault. There were things they could have done to help prevent it—things like my pastor-father being home more, and not always on church-duty; things like him paying more attention to me and wanting to hang out with me; things like my mother being more self-confident, complimentary, and joy-filled. She didn't have to dish up our meals all the time, and she and Dad could have let us make more decisions.

But it wasn't their fault. My brother and sisters didn't have eating disorders; I was a sensitive, aesthetic soul who felt things deeply and desired some semblance of control over my life. So I stopped eating.

And I didn't really start again until I lay shivering from hypothermia on a hospital bed, four years later, at the age of 13, the nurses astounded that I was still alive and my mother telling me I was a miracle.

And this realization that God had saved me twice—once on the cross and once in that hospital room—gave me the love I needed to get better.

Perfect love has no fear. And as a result of knowing God was pursuing me and desiring me (all I'd ever wanted from my parents), I found the courage to pick up my fork and eat.

Emily Wierenga is a wife, mother of four boys (two of whom are hers), artist, and author of Chasing Silhouettes: How to Help a Loved One Battling an Eating Disorder, with Dr. Gregory Jantz. Find more info at http://chasingsilhouettes.com/.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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