Skip navigation

When the impulse to be thin never grows old: Middle-aged women also suffer from deadly eating disorders

.

Sharon Kirkey 

National Post

July 17, 2015

.

Michelle Stewart weighed about 30 kilograms, less than what she weighed as a 10-year-old.

.

Still, as her sister helped her into the shower room in her wheelchair, she was worried. Looking down at what was left of her body, she asked, “Do I look heavier?”

.

Stewart was in a hospital in Saanichton, B.C., dying from kidney failure. But she had refused dialysis or a transplant, because that would mean agreeing to a strict diet and never voluntarily vomiting again.

.

Last year, she died at age 49.

.

There have been panicked headlines in the last decade or so about symptoms of full-blown anorexia in girls as young as eight, and men getting sick in their efforts to emulate David-Beckham-like physiques, although men are better protected, because the ideal body shape for them is not quite so impossible as the ideal body shape for women. But Stewart is part of another pendulum swing — a growing cohort of middle-aged women with eating disorders.

.

Mike Coppola/Getty ImagesModel Christie Brinkley at Cafe Carlyle on April 1, 2014 in New York City.

.

Some of these women grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, when anorexia increased sharply. Now, as the first wave enters middle age, experts are discovering the impulse to be thin never grows old.

.

Like Stewart, who struggled with anorexia nervosa and bulimia for 32 years, many of these women have hidden their illness until their bodies finally give out from a lifetime of self-starvation. Increasing numbers of women in middle age are also seeking treatment for the first time in their lives.

.

Younger women, of course, have always felt pressured to achieve the “perfect” size — the Twiggy figure, the Jane Fonda body, the Kate Moss heroin chic, and the list goes on.

.

But now 61-year-old swimsuit-clad former Sports Illustrated supermodel Christie Brinkley (“She’s How Old?”) and raw-food evangelist Carol Alt beam out from the covers of magazines, telegraphing to older women: aging isn’t acceptable. This is how you can, and should look. Whereas men were recently urged to embrace their “dad bod,” the pressure on women is to look like a “yummy mummy,” forever.

.

Chris Mikula / Postmedia NewsCarol Alt in 2011. She has written books on raw food diets, has graced the covers of more than 700 magazines in her career and been called ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ by Playboy magazine.

.

Social media compound the problem. Women log into Facebook and immediately compare themselves to other women, says Debbie Berlin-Romalis, executive director of Sheena’s Place in Toronto. “They see these images and think, ‘She’s more successful than me, she travels more than me, she has more friends — and, she’s thinner than me.’ ”

.

Feminist writer Naomi Wolf has famously argued the cultural fixation with female skinniness is about “female obedience.” Dieting, Wolf wrote in her seminal book The Beauty Myth, “is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

.

Yet other research suggests anorexia can be oddly empowering. In a paper published last year in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, researchers from Rutgers University reported women with anorexia not only experience well-documented feelings of shame, sadness and guilt, but also a sense of pride and accomplishment as the numbers on the scale keep falling.

.

Even for women who seem to “have it all,” controlling their physical size can be seen as the ultimate sign of willpower.

.

“It goes to this feeling of success — ‘This shows I’m strong, this shows I’m successful. I can be the CEO, I can do anything,’” says Dr. Valerie Taylor, psychiatrist-in-chief at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. “It may not be conscious, but it’s there.”

.

Society also equates thinness with success, Taylor says. While there’s some forgiveness for men as they age, that’s less so for women — reinforcing their fear unless they stay slim they won’t look “with it” and in control.

 

 

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: