Eating Disorders and The Executive Woman
September 29, 2011

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The other day, Valerie sent me a link to this article, entitled “Eating Disorders and the Executive Woman.” She sent it to me because we’re both fascinated by the fact that so many overachieving and type A women—some of the same women Val went to law school with, and I’m doing my post-bacc with–are also prone to ED behaviors, if not full blown disorders. This particular article details what happens when those high-achieving grad students continue to harbor ED habits well into adulthood and professional life. I found it harrowing to read.

Because eating disorders tend to develop in the pre-teen or teen years, and sometimes the early twenties, we tend to speak of them as if they’re teenage illnesses that one inevitably recovers from or grows out of (or both). In fairness, many women (and men) do recover from their EDs by the time they reach their early thirties, which is why we make the assumption. But—as anyone who has ever had a disordered adult coworker, boss, aunt, mother, or friend knows—many disorders remain untreated until adulthood. These disorders may have been mild enough to escape intervention in the past, but that does not mean they won’t erupt into clinical and life-threatening conditions later in life.

This article tells the story of two women who nearly died due to the escalation of their disorders. Neither were college students or sweet sixteens; they were grown women with successful and high powered careers, families, and loads of adult responsibility. The disorders that had begun earlier in life were triggered and intensified by career demands and the ups and downs of mature life, and the consequences were devastating.

The lesson here is obvious: eating disorders strike at all ages. And because adults who suffer aren’t likely to be confronted by parents, teachers, or guardians as quickly as will a teenager, the disorders can often persist under the radar for far longer. Sooner or later, the behaviors will take a toll.

The other theme here is the ongoing link between “over-achieving” and EDs. I usually put the phrase “over-acheiver” in quotes because I dislike the implication that an appetite for achievement is somehow out of keeping with a set norm, but I know as well as anyone that there is a level of professional zeal that is probably unhealthy. And it seems to occasionally overlap with ED tendencies.

It’s funny: people always talk about how thin women in New York are, and that’s true, but one of the first things I noticed when I got to DC was how many thin and obviously very muscled women there were here. In truth, many of the women I see around town strike me as hauntingly thin. I don’t assume that all thin people have EDs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me that there is a link between DC’s culture of hyper-achievement and Type A tendencies and the fact that many of its professionals are very slender and very into fitness.

Both women profiled in the article are on their way to recovery, which is heartening. But I think that the take home message for all of us is to be aware of the fact that ED behaviors are not confined to adolescence or young adulthood. If you have an adult friend who seems to be showing signals of disordered behavior—a parent, a colleague, a friend—don’t hesitate to express concern. And for those of us who have recovered from adolescent disorders, this a sobering reminder that recovery is a lifelong process, and it demands constant vigilance. Recovery in one’s teen years does not mean that the stresses of adult working life, parenthood, and financial independence might not trigger you once again. As a person who has had two relapses since the first onset of her disordered eating, I know all too well how fragile recovery is—even when it has been triumphant.

I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on the article. Have you known any adults with serious EDs? Do you know anyone whose professional life tends to fuel his or her disorder? Have you yourself suffered from such a pattern?

xo

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    56 Comments
  1. Wow this is really great to read. I am 56 now, and developed Anorexia by the time I was 15 or 16 in response to very critical and domineering parents. I did okay during my twenties while having my children, but became bulimic from 32 to well in my 40’s. Sounds like am recovered but I am not. I still ‘want’ to engage because binging is the only way I know to release stress and douse the sadness and grief I seem to have been born with. Although, I must say I am slowly….very, very slowly…recovering from this now. I do not engage in bulimic behavior anymore simply because it causes serious side effects. My body can no longer tolerate the enormous pressure that throwing up places on it and so I do not engage. However I still eat……way much….and am 60 lbs. overweight and can’t find a way to loose it. I lost over 20 a year ago but put most of them back on, due to inability to handle stressful situations. Finding a way out, and another way to ‘be’ is definitely going to take me the rest of my life; but at least I am good with just being a work in progress now and no longer feel like a terrible, terrible and hopeless failure. I just have not come close to what and who I thought I would/should be, by this stage in my life. And I never till now, realized I am not the only one in the entire world at my age suffering from this. I do not attend support groups nor have therapy and have never really had a platform where I could discuss this. The one therapist I sought out early in my cycle said this was a teenagers condition, and I left his office barely being able to see straight and sobbing harder than I ever had or ever have since then, This was a therapist who was at the top of his field and highly sought after. I never could figure out why he reacted to me as he did…he said ” do you know what bulimia does to your body “? and never for one second took me seriously. It was bizarre and to this day I never quite realized how it forced me to place myself and my condition on the back burner as being ignorant, attention seeking, impossible and downright unimportant. If anything, finding this post and the replies may just be equivalent of many years worth of therapy for me, finally!! I almost can’t believe that this is not something exlusive to me!!!!!
    Somehow I think I WILL make it, WILL recover my health and weight and maybe finally be free from the incessant urges and needs around food that debilitate my judgements, happiness and finances. Not sure why this is happening now, at almost 4 AM on a day I have to be up to work tomorrow but whatever force brought me here is okay with me!

  2. […] it feels like only yesterday that you moved to DC, or when we had this long discussion regarding eating disorders and the executive woman, or many of the other discussions we have had over the years.  It has been such fun having you […]

  3. My grandmother dealt with anorexia and bulimia until the end of her life (she was in her seventies when she passed). Many of my earliest memories of her center on food–she was quite the Southern woman and cooked a mean repertoire of fried, butter-laden foods that she subsequently forced down my brothers’, cousins’, and my throats in large quantity–but, strikingly, I never remember her sitting down to eat with us. Her parents and a majority of her seven siblings were morbidly obese and died from heart disease, and I think she developed the EDs as a way to try to take control of what seemed like an inevitable struggle against weight. She also had an obsessive, addictive personality–alcohol, cigarettes, prescription drugs–but never sought help for any of her demons because she thought it shameful and improper even to admit they existed. So I suppose my point is just to say that, yes, EDs affect far more people at far more stages in life than we tend to imagine.

  4. Hi Gena,
    This is a very thoughtful article and very true. I specialize in working with women who have eating disorders. They affect women of all ages. Many women who are older can be hesitant to reach out for help because they feel it is a teenage/young adult illness. I love the awareness the original article brings and also what you have written. Very thought provoking and awareness raising. I’ve had clients in their 60s and 70s!
    Thank you for your post.
    Jennifer

  5. Surely the spectrum of EDs includes the other end, that of eating too much bad food, contributing to the obesity epidemic in most countries. In that case, it is the poor of Western societies who are “suffering”.
    Both being self-inflicted, I have more sympathy for those on the lower rungs, as they have been more thoroughly (rate wise) duped. I also reserve my sympathy for those children and others with serious, non-inflicted physiological diseases.
    I’m not a member of the ED club, and have never met a case which made me think it was worth writing so much about. There are worse psychological illnesses that do move me, not this one. This, I think, is the worst part of your blog, Gena, this “discussion”; to me it sounds like teenage self-indulgence and not worthy of a non-“sufferers” time. Personally speaking, of course, as it is your blog. Just feedback.

    • Unfortunately, Susie, this kind of thinking prevents many individuals from getting appropriate treatment for eating disorders. As Gena has expressed, EDs are not a “club” but a very serious and potentially deadly illness. The misconception that eating disorders are a disease of privilege and “self-indulgence” is simply inaccurate. More and more, we are becoming aware of the prevalence of eating disorders in individuals living below the poverty level and in age groups not previously considered – as Gena’s post points out. The idea, too, that an ED is a “cry for attention” is outdated and hurtful. Finally, if this kind of dialogue is not worth a non-sufferer’s time, whose will it be worth? Sufferers of eating disorders do not exist in a vacuum, but rather inside of a society – the same one as non-sufferers. The two cannot be isolated and it is up to everyone to change the world we live in and eliminate the pressures, hardships and misleading values that contribute to the development of eating disorders in the first place.

      • Thank you, Karen and Jami, for chiming in. I agree that the misrepresentation of eating disorders as a voluntary form of self abuse needs to be hastily swept away; it’s about time. EDs are not a form of vanity or self-indulgence, and it saddens me to think that so many people still view them that way.

        • I just wanted to thank all three of you for addressing that comment in such a respectful and intellectual manner, and conversely, I wanted to thank Susie for providing a concrete example of the ignorance surrounding mental health and the spectrum of disorders it encompasses.

          That stigma and misconception she brought to this discussion is the very reason that so many people who suffer–not by choice, mind you–are hesitant to seek out help and support. While people with cancer and other diseases that can be diagnosed with a blood test would never be told it’s simply in their head or to get over it, those with mental health issues are often dismissed with a wave of the hand and the assumption that it’s a choice.

          There were in fact times I thought the same thing, that if I had cancer it would be easier to deal with as then people would “believe” me, I could take a pill and get treatment and be “better,” with the support of all around me. While I realize how delusional that line of thinking is, at times, it seemed to be easier to cope with. I agree it’s an unfair comparison, but I also agree that whether the disease is of a physical or mental nature, it’s never a choice.

          And also, at least in my case, it was never a cry for sympathy, so Susie can “save her sympathies” for someone else.

          • I would also like to thank you all.

            Mental illness is no less real than physical illness, and this comment smacked sorely of the “just get over it” school which has left so many people in dire need of help neglected, with terrible consequences.

            Sounds very much like someone is lashing out instead of dealing with their own issues; why else be so malicious and hypersensitive in someone’s safe space? However I’m pleased to see that rather than deleting this Neanderthal comment, people have responded intelligently and in an educated fashion. It gives me hope that dangerous, toxic views like Susie’s will disappear sooner rather than later.

    • Thank you for sharing your opinion, Susie. I think it’s unreasonable and unproductive to compare the suffering of people with physiological diseases to the suffering of people who have psychological illnesses. And while it’s fair to say that there is a degree of agency involved in the management of psychological illness, I think it’s inaccurate to suggest that these conditions are “self-inflicted.” Anorexia nervosa, like serious depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, and a host of other ailments, is a disease, and it is a disease that inflicts terrible pain. Few people with anorexia have actively chosen to destroy their relationships, alienate and family and friends, waste their good health, become socially isolated and depressed, and, ultimately, die. They are in the grips of an illness. In some cases, the illness is mild enough that a certain amount of energy and resolve will lead to recovery; other cases are less fortunate.

      I likewise think it’s dangerous to start ranking psychological illness on a “worse” and “better” scale; how do we define criteria that aren’t arbitrary or subjective? Suicidality might seem like a “worse” mental illness than bulimia, but let’s remember that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness in this country. If open dialogs such as this one can do anything to work against those grim facts, I’m happy to be a part of them. Naturally, though, your time is precious, so I welcome you not to read if these conversations strike you as “teenage.”

      • I couldn’t agree more with what all of you have put in response to this comment. Although I may be heading towards the light side of this issue, I still remember, oh so vividly, the thought that I was going completely and utterly mad. As Gena so rightly puts it, I never chose to alienate myself from society, but that is what I did.

        Fair play to you – a beautiful response to an unnecessarily objectionable post. I know that if you’ve not been there, it’s possible that you just ‘don’t get it’, which is understandable. But there is no need for rudeness. Anyone who thinks vanity is the cause for ED clearly has not been there…

      • What a gracious, spot-on reply to this terribly insensitive comment, Gena. It’s these sorts of stereotypicalperceptions that contribute to the deep shame and isolation associated the spectrum of EDs. Voicing such an ill-informed remark is beyond inappropriate and unkind given the number of readers who share their most private experiences in what they consider to be this “safe” community.

  6. Thank you for posting the article and for opening this up for discussion. As many others have stated, this has also been my experience both in the competitive running scene and, albeit more subtly, in Academia – two arenas that reward the classic “overachieving” (a term I’m not terribly fond of) type-A individual. It does seem that there is a relationship between that particular mindset and the mindset that develops when someone is in the clutches of an eating disorder. This is really such a tragedy, even beyond the fact that these women are harming themselves. What I mean is, imagine what a capable, driven, smart woman could do with all of the energy that she is wasting on thinking about/worrying about/obsessing over diet and self-restriction? A woman who is devoting her time and energy to an ED is a hindered woman. Perhaps this sounds paranoid, but sometimes it feels like as if this is yet another mechanism built into patriarchal society to hold women back: as if it were not difficult enough for a woman to navigate and thrive in the professional world, the pressure to look/behave a particular way and to be not merely competent but to meet, in fact, a higher standard than their male counterparts holds women back AND makes them hold themselves back.

  7. Oh totally. My compulsions to go “above and beyond” to the point of masochism are very much in line with my previously very disordered thoughts toward eating. This article really struck a nerve, in a pensive way.

    I work for a television network so I’m pretty into the Hollywood scene. Even at a corporate level, it ain’t pretty. I swear 90% of small talk in some way relates to diet or food.

  8. At my sister’s CPA ceremony they named the top ten highest scoring accountants on the CPA exam in the state (tx). My sister and I both commented on how the women in the group where painfully thin.

  9. I read this at work today and all the comments too but didn’t have a chance to comment until now. As someone who had a college eating disorder, and is right around your age, Gena, I can say that while I have recovered from my eating disorder, I haven’t recovered from all aspects of it yet. And I’m starting to come to terms with the fact, that I may never be able to eat the way I want to eat – which is to say without thought about the consequences of it. I’m not certain that’s a problem because choosing to eat healthy foods or choosing to be a vegan are certainly driven by the consequences of food choices.

    • Amanda,

      It’s a very delicate balance, isn’t it? Going vegan has made me all too aware that my food choices have a deep and serious impact. One would think that this might actually be bad news for a person who is inclined to attach tremendous significance to what she eats. That said, I know the harm my food choices can do, but being vegan (and to a degree, shopping local, organic, fair trade, and so on) has also showed me the *good* that my food choices can do. A topic for another post, perhaps!

      Gena

  10. Eating disorders certainly do not discriminate–I observed a dietitian who specializes in ED this past summer, and not one of the patients I saw was under the age of 25.

  11. Very important topic and definitely one that needs to be discussed – great post Gena.

    @Karen – I was going to suggest the book “Gaining” as well. Read that and found it really interesting, shared with me by a friend who has struggled later in life. I believe the NY Times also had an article not too long ago about the increasing incidence (or at least visibility) of ED’s in older women – and I remember in the comments section that many men were a bit upset that it was so female focused too.

  12. Love that you’re writing about this Gena. There was actually a series of NYT articles last year on this subject. There’s a few things that are especially worrisome about adult ED. First, as adults parents aren’t usually in the picture to observe eating and weight and adults are their own keepers and can disguise things very well. Second, because ED are associated with younger women, what is really an ED can look like a diet gone to far. It’s just easy for things to get out of control with adult women. It’s really scary.

  13. Interesting thoughts on this. I personally didn’t get anorexia due to overworking, but I did get a whole host of other problems and I think that society in general accepts and pushes people to work too hard. It’s also hard to stop that internal voice that makes you overwork. Even not working now it’s hard to not push myself into things that harm me. So in that respect, yes I think overworking and harmful behavior can go together, I’ve seen other versions of it in other women I know–such as drinking too much.

    I do worry about you and your heavy schedule but it seems you are pretty self aware of it and hopefully you are taking time to take care of yourself during this busy time in your life.

  14. My ED problems started because I was overweight (truly! Not just in my head!) when I finished at University, and I started to lose weight because I was uncomfortable at the size I was. Of course I got all the ‘haven’t you done well’, ‘wow you lost so much’ weight comments. Nice, but somewhat addictive. Then combine with that, the fact I was living in a part of England where what you have and how you look is everything. And so then it escalated beyond sense or reason….

    Interestingly, this didn’t really happen until I was in my mid-twenties, so certainly not the teen stage. I really didn’t think about my size or compare myself to others before then.

    For about 10 years of my life, I felt like staying small was the only thing that mattered. The thing that defined me. Recently, I had an epiphany though! Partly it’s becoming vegan and realising that there are SO SO many more important things to life and the planet than trying to be the skinniest girl in the room. Partly I started to realise that when people made ‘complimentary’ comments about my size, it felt hollow, and I realised that there was some sense of envy there – not really what I want people to feel towards me anymore. I’ve started to truly admire women who don’t give a damn! Rather than thinking ‘I wouldn’t wear that if I were her size’, I’ve started to think ‘good on you girl – maybe I should try that style’.

    I can’t say I’ve gained confidence overnight, but despite the fact I’ve gained a good few pounds over the last couple of months is really truly not getting me down! I like that fact that I have a chest again 😉 (as I think is my other half!)

    I don’t know what has made the difference, but I hope to goodness it lasts as I really don’t want to go down that awful route again that darn near killed me.

    I wish all of you good luck and try to remember the worthwhile things that deserve so much more of your energy 🙂

  15. As a woman in her late twenties who only recently began ED recovery, I applaud your calling attention to this problem. Can’t say my disease was triggered by work stress or having a type A personality, but remembering that abnormal eating can claim you at any age is important to remember, and too little acknowledged.

  16. Totally agree. The type A personality is a blessing and curse. What I do find interesting is during medical school, how many of my peers (including myself) have actually gotten better. Going in to med school, I was terrified that I’d get worse and lose more weight — this would have killed me as I was a deathly low BMI upon entering school, and had multiple electrolyte abnormalities on top of it. However, once the focus shifted away from myself, my needs, my fears—it stopped. I simply didn’t have the time to count my calories, think so carefully about my food, or purge. Further, I’d have passed out during every operation greater than 3 hours if I didn’t eat. So interestingly, I think the situation definitely varies depending on the environment. My stress and drive to excel as a physician actually is probably what healed me (among other things obviously).

    • I can really relate to this comment – after 15+ years of varying levels of ED issues (ie ranging from eating just one small meal a day to eating semi-normally, but having a lot of ED thoughts and paralysis about food in social situations) I entered law school. I did so at a point in my life where I was eating very little and would often get light-headed. Sometime in the second day of my first year, I got dizzy in class when the professor was getting into a particularly difficult concept, and afterwards I swore to myself I had to eat because otherwise what was the point of the cost/expense/time/loans of law schools if I was going to be out of it throughout it. It was both freeing and terrifying for a while, and while my ED problems did not get resolved there and then, somewhere, somehow, law school made me realize I had to eat enough in order to function.

      • Hi Nicole and Valerie. It sounds like perhaps these professional pressures worked in a positive way to help you shift from focusing so intently on maintaining your disordered eating “identity” to a more productive, mature (doctor/attorney) “idenity.” The theory is that when we embrace and develop our (non-food related) passions in life, they begin to replace ED behavior/personality. (This is the premise of Dr. Sacker’s work.)

        • I totally agree with this. It was as though I didn’t have time for this other part of myself, and the frankly better/stronger self won. This is simply not a sustainable lifestyle, in any sense of the word. To this day, I struggle with how I look. I struggle with the fact that there are not enough hours in my day to get to the gym more than 3x/week. I struggle when I remember how I looked before I looked sick. In no way am I 100% better, I think I have just realized that I have so many other important facets of my life that I can’t be bothered to entertain something so trivial as how many calories are in that apple. That and I realize I can’t do my job effectively without the fuel that apple represents.

  17. I managed to delete by mistake the long comment I just left – gah – but thank you for posting about this. The gist of my comment had to do with the fact that while I first remember hearing what ED was around ages 7 or 8, I also remember in the last 20 years discussing ED with older female relatives (and relatives of my husband) who did not understand the concept of ED at all – I remember one person (whose grand daughter was battling anorexia) telling me she had never heard that is happened to so often and how she thought it was rare. The generational divides are interesting in that sense.

  18. Hi Gena! i love this posts. my mom (now 50) has been living with an ED (bulimia) for as long as i can remember. What seems weird to me is that, to the outside world she looks fine, she is really thin, but she is functional. She didnt work when we were kids, she was at home, but she was certainly not with us. She was very young when she got married (18) and my brother was born a little over a year after that. I became aware of the disorder when i was a teen, around 16. i started to feel the pull, overexercising, under eating , and binging (then i learned that eating two slices of pizza was not really binging). I also got married really young (and had a kid) at 20 and my second at 23. For me it was so overwhelming, desperately trying to be the best mom i could be (better than mine) that my obsession with food and my body occupied my whole mind. I sought help immediately. i dont know if my ED tendencies are there just because of my mom, but knowing her, knowing it helps nothing has helped me look at every sign of disordered eating behaviour so i can stop it before it gets any worse.
    i think its so important that this is out there, for people to learn. i think that a lot of people don´t really know a lot about this, that having an ED doesn´t mean you are emaciated and can´t function. There are so many other things and ,certainly, that this is not just about “being skinny”.
    Thank you Gena.

    • Hi MB – It actually has been found that there’s very often a strong genetic link in ED’s. It sounds like double wammy may have been at play in your case given that you were exposed environmentally as well. Glad you sought help soon. And, I am glad too that you warn that disordered eating behavior comes in many forms and fashions. Further, over one’s lifetime, it often morphs from the original ED into other “less severe” behavior (i.e. obvious behavior) which is nonetheless equally destructive mentally.

  19. Women just have too many expectations upon them-to look perfect, to be a career women, to cook meals and get the kids everywhere, and then to actually want to make whoopie at nighttime with their husbands who may not have bothered to do a lick of housework during the day because. And is having his own sexual life with online porn.
    I feel like women have to have stronger friendships with each other and not drop everything all the time for the men in the world-AND mothers have to start raising sons to be respectful of women and teach them to love women and not idolize posters and airbrushed magazines, and teach them to help cook & clean. In so many cases it seems like the girls have to pull their weight as daughters and the sons can get away with any type of behavior-Women have to change themselves on the inside as well. But I really feel like mothers have to start taking responsibility for raising respectable men. When even the most “progressive” men are sometimes really not that progressive in terms of objectifying women, then it sets the bar pretty low. And when that is actually the culture it makes it that much more of an uphill battle for women in the world.

  20. Great post and eye-opening article. This scares me a bit because as a young adult, I’ve been struggling with a disordered relationship with food for quite some time. While it’s definitely gotten better, it definitely still manifests itself in my life. I’m a little fearful that a stressful career may provoke disorder worse than what I’ve experienced so far. I’ve always considered myself to be an “overachiever”, but I never really thought about it in connection to my disordered eating before. Now, though, I clearly see the connection. Thank you so much for pointing out such an important link. Every time I read your blog I leave slightly more well-armed with resources to battle my relationship with food.

  21. I read the article you responded to before I came to your post. It’s very interesting, and I suppose in some ways not all that surprising. That eating disorders coincide with the corporate world. I think stress/overachieving and all those things go hand in hand with both EDs and being an executive (not necessarily both at the same time, but they can both manifest or be caused by those areas.).
    Thanks for posting on it, it’s been really interesting reading the responses too.

  22. This is a great article and thanks so much for the link. While I don’t work in the corporate world, in my advocacy about eating disorders and my “watching” of people and life I have seen a large uptick in this trend towards older women developing ED’s. The stresses of life at this high-achievement level are so extreme that I think many of the women turn to food as a coping mechanism. While this isn’t uncommon in our culture as the rise in obesity shows, the coping mechanism of these women flips the other way towards not eating and over-exercising. Are you ever at the gym super early? Look who is around you! Sometimes it turns into a brush with the unhealthy and sometimes if wired correctly it turns into a full blown disorder.

    Sometimes I think that women at this level feel the pressure to look perfect to be taken seriously and held at the same level of regard as men. If they are overweight they may hold the risk of being judged and if they are healthy they hold this risk of being over-sexualized. Better to remain androgenous, right? No.

    In my own treatment I’ve also had many more women who are coming to ed’s later in life. I’m not sure if this is really a rise in the occurance of ed’s or perhaps just more women seeking out treatment.

    Thanks again for this Gena! I may start up my own discussion on it!!

  23. Thank you so much for posting this article in your ongoing quest to educate those who have suffered from EDs and inspire us to be proactive in our recovery. I am glad you are highlighting the concept that “recovery” is a slippery term for many of us, and our past ED’s don’t necessarily follow a predetermined path to recovery just because we are no longer in physical danger.

    For those of you interested in exploring this topic further, I want to recommend two books that were especially illuminating and useful to me:

    Aimee Lui’s “Gaining: The Truth about Life after Eating Disorders.”

    Trisha Gura’s “Lying in Weight: The Hidden Epidemic of Eating Disorders in Adult Women.”

    Also, Ira Sacker, the doctor cited in the article has written several excellent books on the genesis and treatment of eating disorders. For those who want to explore the topic of “identity” further, I’d recommend his 2007 release: “Regaining Your Self: Breaking Free from the Eating Disorder Identity.”

    (I attempted to provide the Amazon links, but the original post got deleted as it appeared too “spammy.”)

  24. Interesting article…and one that is certainly true for many women (and men).

    I haven’t know any older women that have suffered from an ED but I myself have been down that road. It started when I was 16. Now, at 22, I can say it is mostly gone. I’m really working on shaking the disordered thoughts themselves. But that is the toughest part. An ED is so dark and incredibly stifling. Now, being in recovery, I feel so much freer and lighter; not weighed down by my ED.

  25. Wow. As I mentioned above, my ED didn’t start until I was an adult – 30. But prir to that I’d been in several high-pressure work environments, which definitely contributed. As did a rough divorce and then a neglectful boyfriend. But anyway. 🙂 Since I work in the specialty grocery industry, I see an interesting sample of the population. I see more adult women than any other group exhibiting ED signs. Most are in their late 40s to early 50s. I read in Lying in Weight ( an awesome book about adult women with EDs) that only 1/3 of ED sufferers truly recover. Another 1/3 stay very sick and
    potentially die, and the last 1/3 stay as
    ‘maintenance’ EDers for the rest of their lives.

  26. Oh yes certainly, my impression is that almost everyone has some sort of ED, it is one of our challenges in the world today together with ecology. Actually I would call it imbalance.

    We have/have been speeded up too much and must return to some sort of simpler and more conscious lifestyle to survive, that is find a better balance.

    I continue to be impressed by your intelligence in talking about these matters…

  27. This definitely hits home for me. I spent my placement year (work experience between studies) working for a very high profile corporate in London. At first the challenges of working long hours in a fast-paced and demanding environment allowed the overachiever in me to thrive – but it soon turned destructive. I’d become so used to routines, everything being systematic and organized; I think I subconsciously thought that if I could excel at my job through meticulous organisation and careful planning then surely I could apply the same principles to other aspects of my life. That’s when the obsessive exercise, calorie counting and restriction began.

    Life – and happiness – is not a calculated equation, and as much as I enjoyed my work experience I think a corporate work environment has a tendency to evoke this misconception.

  28. I quitted going to therapy for about a month ago, since I have recovered a lot since I started going there for ED about a year ago. Being 24 and moving home to my parents for half a year wasn’t easy – I really felt like I had done a big failure. I, who always have done good in school and work, couldn’t even eat properly. But I’ve learned so much during the last year, to not be so hard on myself and sometimes just to relax and trust other people than myself.

    And yes, my life as it were, were certinaly fueling my triggers and my ED. Everthing had to be perfect and I had to perform my best all the time, otherwise I didn’t think it was worth enough. Really good post Gena – the think about ED being “just” a teenage problem is worth adressing!

  29. I agree, ED behaviours can occur at every age. I suspect that my mother has been having some ED tendencies for many years, even showing them today, and she’s 60! And that’s exactly what makes things so hard. She’s been rejecting food for decades, living on black coffee and cigarettes. I’ve tried to talk to her so many times, telling her how worried I am about her health, but she refuses to listen.
    This has nothing to do with “over-achieving”, or maybe it does in a more personal, not job related way. Just pointing out that ED behaviours are not limited to young age.

  30. I too, found this story harrowing to read. I appreciate you posting this and reiterating that recovery is a life long process. Even though I know from my experience working with others that eating disorders affect women (and men) of all ages, the reminder that we’re always in recovery is important.

  31. Sorry–one thing I forgot to say: this whole background is a big part of why I don’t think I would be capable of holding down an ‘executive’ or other high-pressure job, despite my work ethic and iq, and not just because of persisting physical and mental health problems. And maybe it’s better for people with this kind of very persistent tendency to avoid very stressful work situations in general until they have some really strong recovery on all levels…

  32. I’m off to read the article but wanted to chime in first–I’m in my early-mid-30’s now and didn’t reach the depths of my ED until my mid-20’s. During the months I was hospitalized, I met a half dozen women _over 50_ with serious eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia) and several others at least a decade or two older than me. The most triggering people I’ve seen recently have all been in their 40’s, at a guess, or more.

    And agonizingly, I’m increasingly having to face that I’m not fully ‘recovered’ by any means–on a more heartening note, I’m coming to recognize that it’s worth writing about the process even as it remains toilsome.

    Thanks for sharing.

  33. This is one of the many reasons I enjoy reading your blog, Gena, because you bring up topics like this that are so important to discuss. Similarly to this, Ashley of Nourishing the Soul wrote about the rise of eating disorders in African American women here:

    http://www.nourishing-the-soul.com/2011/09/breaking-the-silence-eating-disorder-in-black-women/

    It’s very similar to this-that EDs can affect all ages AND races. I’ll admit I got a little freaked when I read your line about how even if one recovers mostly in their teen years, one can be triggered again in their 30’s from work or family stress. Obviously we need to remember that EDs impact our entire lives, and we cannot forget to take care of ourselves always, especially when we could be triggered again.

  34. As usual, you hit the nail on the head. I definitely fell into this overacheiving category, and definitely went through a rough couple of years when I struggled with disordered eating. I can completely relate to the way the women in the article talked about using restriction as a coping mechanism – when things became stressful in my life, my disordered eating was one thing I knew I could control. Thankfully, a lot of wonderful blogs like yours have helped me find my way to a very healthy, loving, accepting relationship with (vegan!) food and with my body.
    I’m also not surprised to hear that you observe a number of the same tendencies among your post-bacc colleagues. I’m currently in medical school, and I definitely notice that a LOT of women have disordered eating tendencies. That’s why it’s so important to raise awareness about EDs in these kinds of populations and provide help for those who need it.

  35. I’m so glad to see this getting more attention. I developed an ED young but didn’t truly seek help until my 30s (I went to a few support groups when I was in high school and college but was still pretty entranced with my ED then and didn’t take it seriously enough). And while the roots of EDs are the same regardless of age, there were factors that made it different for me to be getting treatment at 33 than the people literally half my age I was sharing dinner with. (Actually, it was remarkable how much we did have in common, come to think of it.) Sometimes our treatment leaders would divide us into age-based groups, for when you’re talking about family dynamics and EDs, the experience of a high school or college student is quite different from that of an adult woman living on her own–or one who has children of her own. I also had to deal with a sort of jealousy of the younger women–it was difficult for me to see them coming in with their parents to family group, knowing that my own family hadn’t been as supportive as I would have liked. Of course I was happy that they were getting treatment early on, but that lived alongside my own sadness for my teen years.

    I don’t know if my professional life per se fueled my ED. I mean, to a degree it did–I worked in women’s magazines so diet talk was literally a part of my job. But that was less about adulthood and more about the environment. I was actually more achievement-driven in high school and college, I think. But certainly I see colleagues who have telltale behaviors who seem to me to be struggling in a way that’s particular to them being high achievers.

  36. I’m definitely in that category. My whole early life wasgeared towards external shows of academic achievement (even from the age of three being forced to read to other kindergarten students) which was the only way I felt validated. I was abused, so I felt terrible, so I “comforted myself” with food but then was criticised for being fat and being a terrible person, so I starved and purged. The other overcompensatory factor apart from food was overwork – the harder I pushed myself, the more I could achieve, the more I received positive feedback – and this was the only way I received that feedback, not only from family but “friends”, teachers, peers. I couldn’t access good feelings in “normal” ways, so I learned to find it elsewhere. From 2004-2008 I literally did nothing else with my time than study, every second of every day, and I did very well with scholarships, high grades, all that sort of thing, until I physically collapsed and couldn’t do any more. I’m still recovering from that combination of too much pressure, PTSD and EDs and I’m not sure that I ever will completely.

    I think that may be a part of it, which isn’t described in the article but you touch on very well here – I think the drive to achieve and the drive to control are both manifestations of the same feeling of “lack” that’s at the heart of EDs for many people. For me at least, they’re just two sides of the same coin, and when I notice myself doing one, I’m usually doing the other too.

    I’m still not sure how best to apply that information to my life, other than emphasising rest, slow work (never pushing myself), and good (vegan) nutrition. It seems to be helping, but only when I work on the issues with external validation at the same time as the food ones. It’s hard, especially with PTSD making it impossible for me to exercise without causing flashbacks and anxiety, meaning my body is far bigger than I would like it to be. Overall though I think that it’s only when all the manifestations of feeling “lack” and “emptiness” are dealt with at the same time, that there’s a chance of breaking the ED stranglehold.

    (hope you don’t mind this being long but you got me thinking, as usual! 🙂 )

    • Oh, love, do I know your pain. (To qualify, not to brag: I am also recovering from a lifetime of abuse, a sexual assault, anxiety disorder, PTSD, depression, and have chronic illness.) My ED didn’t start until I was an adult, but I showed many compulsive behaviors before that. Now in therapy, it’s strpngly recommended that I avoid cardio exercise, because I punished myself with it for so long. I still eat compulsively, though, and therefore am slowly but steadily gaining weight. I don’t know whay my point was, except just to say… I’m here, I understand.

  37. Gena this post is excellent. Trust me, living in SoCal (and if you think women are thin on the east coast, I think San Diego, OC and LA women are thinner as a whole) but yes, I see many thin ladies here.

    And who knows if they have EDs or not, or if there are past food issues or not, or what their backstory is. It’s not easy, fair, or right to judge from afar or to jump to conclusions without knowing them personally, but the fact that you bring up the connection with over-achieving women and EDs and that it’s not just a teenage disorder, I whole-heatedly agree with that.

    I am off to go read the article…

    • I second the So Cal thing! Having lived around LA most of my life, the pressure is incredible! I often fear my future because I already feel pressure to be a perfect worker, daughter, friend, and girlfriend…. and I’m sure those feelings will intensify once I become a wife and mother. I’ve mostly grown to accept my body, because I really did spend years with unheathy behaviors trying to get it to be something else… when really, I just don’t think it’s achievable at the moment, or at all.

      • I live in North Hollywood and work in Burbank. Thankfully this SoCal thin pressure has not made it up here and most are pretty cool about eating and size. Especially in the yoga circles 🙂

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