Renfrew Center Promotes Positive Body Image, Combats Eating Disorders
April 16, 2015
Cara Delevingne and Miranda Kerr, Cindy Crawford and Kate Moss, Twiggy and Anna Karina, Zelda Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker. For decades, women have been looking to other women in order to check the pulse of society with regards to beauty standards. Whether through models, actresses, singers or general entertainers, there have always existed those paragons of beauty from whom everyone else has taken their cue. And whether we admit it or not, we all acknowledge these beauty standards and, at least occasionally, strive to fit within their parameters. But what are the far-reaching effects of growing up looking toward the runway or the silver screen for direction and validation?
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 8-18 year olds will interact with some form of media for about 7.5 hours per day. This age group also happens to be the major turning point in adolescence. At this age, preteens and teenagers are discovering who they are and what it means to successfully interact among their peers and society in general. This high level of media exposure combined with the instability of this age group often leads to serious body-image consequences, specifically in females.
In order to better understand the existing current of eating disorders, I connected with the Renfrew Center. The Renfrew Center, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary later this month, is an eating disorder treatment facility that provides both in-patient and out-patient care and treatment. With the closest location to Villanova being in Radnor Township, the Renfrew Center has over 15 locations across the country, reaching from Philadelphia to Chicago to Dallas to Los Angeles. Each of these locations shares a common goal—to care for individuals struggling through an eating disorder.
In speaking with Jessica Feldman, the site director at Radnor's branch of Renfrew, I learned that compared to men, women struggle with eating disorders and body image problems in an overwhelming 10-1 statistic. Why should these statistics cause some concern other than the fact that they catalog a seriously negative trend? College.
About 91 percent of females begin experimenting with their diet in college. At first glance, this seems like a natural part of the growing up process. In college, parents are not telling you what you can and cannot eat. In college, you have a chance to reinvent yourself and your body. In college, there is an entirely new culture of independence complete with new friends, new expectations, new pressures and new stresses. Unfortunately for many college students, the combination of all of these new college experiences can turn diet experimentation into something more serious. This may be why, according to the website for The Center for Eating Disorders, about 20 percent of college-age females show symptoms of bulimia.
What exactly comprises an eating disorder? In speaking with Feldman, I learned that the three most common variations of eating disorders in the United States are anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder. Anorexia, according to Feldman, is a strong fear of gaining weight, which is often accompanied by extreme body dysmorphia and usually manifests itself in extreme preventative measures against weight gain, such as starvation. Bulimia is a cyclical process, which involves binge eating (consuming more food than is healthy) followed by some kind of purge. The purpose of the purge is to undo the effects of the calories consumed during the binge and typically takes place in the form of intense exercise, self-induced vomiting and laxative use. Binge-eating disorder is increasingly becoming a common eating disorder with an estimated 3.5 percent of women and two percent of men experiencing symptoms of binge eating at some point in their lives. Only recently being added to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the symptoms of binge-eating disorder are essentially the same as those of bulimia but without the purging component.
It is also worth noting that these and other eating disorders are often not as linear as these definitions make them seem. Some people struggle with symptoms of several eating disorders at once. This is why there is another category of eating disorders recognized by the DSM-V: Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. According to the Center for Eating Disorders, this is the most populated section of eating disorders. Forty to sixty percent of those admitted into eating disorder treatment facilities fall into the EDNOS category. Symptoms of EDNOS include both symptoms of anorexia and bulimia, as well as other abnormal eating habits that do not fall into either categories of anorexia or bulimia.
So, now that we have working definitions for several types of eating disorders, what triggers these eating disorders? This is the most complicated part of handling and treating eating disorders. Often, there are predisposing genetic and biological factors. Stress is another factor. However, there are also strong ties between eating disorders, the media, and that classic fiend—peer pressure.
I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with an alumnus of Renfrew Center who took the time to share her ongoing story with me. Jennifer (whose last name will be concealed for the purpose of confidentiality) began struggling with diets and body image issues at the age of 14, which means she fell right within that timeframe when most people begin exhibiting symptoms of an eating disorder. Like most young women, Jennifer expressed her adolescent desire to be accepted and admired amongst her peers. When Jennifer began to lose unhealthy amounts of weight, she received mixed signals from those in her immediate sphere of influence. From her family, Jennifer received expressions of concern and was told that she looked sick and unhealthy. From her friends and peers, however, Jennifer received nothing but compliments and praise. She was skinny (skinnier than what was healthy), and so she received affirmation from those who considered skinniness to be the ideal form of beauty.
When asked how the media affected her body image and eating disorder, Jennifer pointed out that, in 2003, when she was in the middle of her struggle against symptoms of anorexia and binge-eating disorder, the media was a very different place than it is now. Kate Moss, who famously claimed her life motto to be "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels," popularized the "heroin chic" style in the late '90's, which glorified skeletal bodies and sunken cheeks.
The early 2000's inherited many of the same beauty ideals that the '90's perpetuated, the results of which have had negative effects on young women like Jennifer ever since. Unfortunately, our culture is still reaping the consequences of a society bent on skinny. The Internet is filled with blogs dedicated to and operated by those with anorexia and other eating disorders. On these blogs, those experiencing eating disorders encourage each other's unhealthy eating and exercising habits. The term "thinspo," short for "thin inspiration," is an expression used to describe pictures of thin women and quotes encouraging dieting and exercising (like that of Kate Moss) which "inspire" those with eating disorders to continue their behavior.
Now for the good news—society is shifting.
I asked Jennifer to share her opinions on today's media and her response was hopeful. According to Jennifer, today's media is "pushing back" against the outdated body image ideals perpetuated by those dictators of beauty. Dove recently launched its overwhelmingly popular Campaign for Real Beauty, the tagline of which is, "Imagine a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety" and whose goal, according to their website, is to "widen the definition of beauty." There is also Aerie, the popular clothing and women's underwear retailer that launched its "Aerie Real" campaign, which boasts the end of photoshopped models. All of the photos on Aerie's website and in Aerie's storefront ads boast the phrase, "The girl in this photo has not been retouched—the real you is sexy." More recently, Lane Bryant, popular plus-sized clothing retailer, launched their "I'm no angel" campaign, seemingly aimed directly at Victoria's Secret's long-running Angel campaign. Lane Bryant's website claims "sexy comes in many shapes and sizes." The point of all of these ads is to highlight the fact that media seems to finally have caught on to the fact that they are responsible, at least in great part, for the health and well being of their audience.
Jennifer, who underwent treatment at Renfrew Center, made it a point to say that there will always be "the perfect body," and she's probably right. At least in some capacity, there will always be an ideal image that is perpetuated by the fashion industry and the media. The important thing to remember, though, is that the public is catching on. Eating Disorder Awareness Week is more popular now than it ever has been which means that, slowly but surely, the stigma against those with eating disorders is dissipating. According to Jennifer, there will always be people who just don't "get it" when it comes to sympathizing with and helping those struggling with an eating disorder. But the important thing is that we are at least talking about it. We may be talking quietly but whispers often turn into screams and this brings hope to those like Jennifer.
It's important to remember that no body type is a bad body type. In fighting against the "skinny ideal," it can be easy to get carried away into the polar opposite realm of skinny shaming, which some have argued is a rising undertone in music like that of Meghan Trainor. But the marketing geniuses behind Aerie's current homepage capture the importance of accepting all body types in this way: "Big booty? No booty? Curvy? Flat? Love the real you." The important thing is to be healthy and happy with the body you find yourself in.
When asked what they wanted college kids struggling with weight and body identity issues to know, both Jennifer, Renfrew alumnus, and Feldman, Renfrew site coordinator, said that although these issues are scary, recovery is possible. Jennifer, who underwent two separate treatment periods at Renfrew—once during her junior year of high school and once during her sophomore year of college—pointed out that, "we all have things that separate us from one another" and eating disorders are no exception. We all struggle with our personal demons and this fact alone should break down the walls and stigmas that divide us.
If you or a friend is dealing with an eating disorder, body dysmorphia, or just general anxiety with regards to body image and weight, you can reach the Renfrew Center at 1-800-RENFREW to set up an assessment appointment. You can also reach Villanova's counseling center at 610-519-4050.