Looking past the mirror: Student overcomes eating disorder

Rachel Chen, Staff writer

Looking into the mirror, she began to notice things she had not noticed before. Her cheeks were too puffy. Her arms were thicker. She was gaining weight on her sides. She felt fat.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, in the United States alone, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from an eating disorder during their lives. Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating are the main disorders. Anorexia is the refusal to eat in order to lose weight while bulimia consists of throwing up food to lose weight. Binge eaters regularly overeat to the point where their body cannot use all the calories consumed.

In the fall of her sophomore year, senior Waverly Shiao began to struggle with bulimia.

“It was during a time when I was really craving attention,” Shiao said. “I was having moments where I didn’t feel good enough and that I wasn’t as popular as I would have liked. I thought that being skinny would get me attention. I also really got into fashion and there are skinny models all throughout fashion. Seeing them, I felt like I didn’t look skinny enough, even though I was relatively skinny to begin with. I just felt like I didn’t look as elegant as they did.”

According to school nurse Lisa Dexter, the pressure to be thin causes some people to think bulimia or anorexia are the easiest ways to lose weight.

“It goes on and then it becomes an obsession and then it becomes damaging to the body,” Dexter said.

Despite wanting to lose weight, Shiao could not give up food, and decided to rely on purging and exercise to lose weight.

“I’d heard about bulimia,” Shiao said. “But I never really knew the consequences. I never really did much research about it; I just rushed into it because I thought that was easiest and my only option. If I had heard about the consequences, maybe I might have changed my mentality. But at the moment, I was really vulnerable and I was kind of willing to do almost anything. I really wanted to be what everyone would adore.”

The consequences for different eating disorders vary, but all types can have damaging side effects and in some cases these side effects even lead to death. Anorexia can cause hair loss, brittle bones and weakness from muscle loss. Bulimia can lead to tooth decay from stomach acids, a ruptured esophagus or an electrolyte imbalance, which can result in heart failure. Binge eating can cause high blood pressure, high cholesterol or type II diabetes mellitus. Dexter also pointed out that general fatigue is a telltale sign of most eating disorders.

“When you eat, that’s your body’s glucose,” Dexter said. “That’s what makes you get up and go. If you’re not eating then you’re not going to have any glucose in your body for your cells to work properly.”

When Shiao told her mother about her bulimia, they went to the doctor’s office to get a diagnosis. He gave her treatment option brochures and a few days later, Shiao walked in on her mother looking at them at home. Although she never actually went in for treatment, Shiao said that moment was a turning point.

“She was really concerned,” Shiao said. “She was crying and I could see how scared she was for me. I felt like I wasn’t just damaging myself, I was damaging people around me. I didn’t think my parents would care, but as soon as I saw my mom crying like that, it just kind of hit home.”

The other turning point in Shiao’s story came after a friend sent her the Bible verse 1 Corinthians 6:19. The verse helped her further realize that she was hurting more than just herself.

“We were chatting on Gmail, and he was telling me how ‘Your body is a temple of Christ, and to defile your body like this is pretty much giving God a slap on the face,’” Shiao said. “Before that verse, I didn’t really think anything was wrong. I thought that this was like working out – a temporary pain and after that, perfection. That’s when I started really looking into side effects of doing this and the consequences of it. And then I started to get worried. I guess that verse really resonated and made me think, ‘This body isn’t just mine. This belongs to God and would he really want me to do this?’ I felt like I was just a giant hurricane of emotions and conflicting thoughts.”

As warmer weather came around, Shiao could no longer hide her changing body underneath baggy clothes and began to drop hints about her condition to her friends. When her friends did not approve, Shiao began to realize that bulimia was not the best idea, despite her desire to be skinnier. With the help and advice of her friends and online communities, Shiao was able to overcome her eating disorder after around six months of being bulimic. Since she has recovered in the spring of 10th grade, she has only slipped once.

Although Shiao recovered without any professional treatment, Dexter advocates seeking professional help as soon as possible.

“There’s more to it than just an eating disorder,” Dexter said. “It’s also a mental disorder as well that needs help – a psychiatric disorder. If you know someone that is going through it, the best thing is to find your counselor either here at school, the school nurse or maybe a principal – somebody they can confide in. Let them in, let them know what might be going on with that student. We could probably start watching the child and if we see that there is definitely something going on, we can help get them treatment.”

Shiao advises friends of people struggling with eating disorders not to jump into criticism.

“That just makes them defensive and makes them want to prove you wrong,” Shiao said. “I think what you need to do first is try to be more understanding. You shouldn’t tell them that you understand, because you can’t understand if you’ve never been in that situation. Maybe set up a day where you guys just hang out together and when there’s a quiet moment, really ease into it and make sure you’re constantly letting them know how much you care about them and you’re only saying this because you care.”

In Shiao’s opinion, self-harm can be prevented by realizing that being healthy is more essential than an ideal body.

“Some people just need to accept that their bodies were not built to be like skinny models,” Shiao said. “They may be losing all the weight they can and they’re thinking, ‘Why don’t I look like those models yet?’ It’s simply because some people aren’t built that way and they need to accept that. Once they accept that, once they get over that and really enjoy what they look like and love who they are, it’s really one less stress off your back. When you put too much stress on beauty, you’re just putting too much stress on yourself over something that shouldn’t be that important.”