Starving for attention: A WAFF 48 News special report

By Tricia Forbes – bio | email

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - The pressure to be thin heats up this time of year just as the weather does and young women and girls are the hardest hit. What happens when that quest to be perfect turns deadly?

From magazine covers to television ads, society says thin is in, but what many don't see is the extreme lengths some young people are going to by harming their own bodies and endangering their lives to fit a certain image.

One Huntsville woman who is in recovery for an eating disorder says her obsession started innocently.

"It was just innocent, you know just lose a few pounds to get healthy, going to the gym," said Madison.

That trip to the gym quickly turned to an obsession. Madison had a full blown eating disorder by the time she was 16. She was starving herself and over-exercising; striving for what she thought was perfection. Mental health counselor Rita Limbaugh says a person struggling with an eating disorder doesn't see that they've gone too far.

"They have that distorted view, they look in a mirror and they see this still overweight person who needs to continue to diet and exercise to be attractive and to be perfect," explained Limbaugh.

Limbaugh says underlying emotional issues have to be treated for recovery to start.

"You don't realize that all those negative feelings aren't coming from how you look, but what's going on internally," she said.

Madison's mom struggled to get her into treatment.

"It's hard to sit back and watch your child do the things that she's doing to herself and she's not cognitively aware of the dangers of her eating disorder and how it can kill her," said Madison's mother.

Madison finally admitted she needed help, but she says it's a struggle every day.

"The media, just all these celebrities, I mean you can't even walk in the grocery store without seeing something about this fad diet or how to lose weight," said Madison.

And an even bigger trigger is lurking behind Facebook, something nearly every young person has access to.

"Parents are very naive and out of touch with the Facebook scene and with the pressure," said Madison's dietician Tammy Beasley. "I think it is trouble waiting to happen."

Madison says she would spend hours on the computer, comparing herself to other girls.

"I feel like so depressed and I just want to change everything about me and I just want to go out there and run so many miles and lose weight. It's really hard," said Madison.

Beasley says the Photoshopped pictures on Facebook and celebrity blogs are very dangerous for someone with low self-esteem.

"What we're comparing ourselves to is plastic, it is not real," said Beasley. "That is not a real person, that is an avatar that is an illusion. Don't buy it."

Madison says without her mom and Beasley by her side, she could have died. She has a message for girls who are struggling right now.

"Stop now before it gets too bad," she said. "I know how hard it is, but you're beautiful the way you are and you shouldn't have to lose weight or let food or calories control you because it is such a sick disease and it will take over your life if you don't get help now."

If you suspect someone has an eating disorder, look for these warning signs:

  • Weight loss
  • Excessive exercising (more than two hours at a time more than three times a week)
  • Energy loss
  • Loss of menstrual cycle
  • Lashing out in anger
  • Someone who is very thin but wears baggy clothing
  • Dropping grades or comprehension
  • Hidden food wrappers
  • Excessive baking or cooking but you never see the person eating the food
  • Depression
  • Isolation
  • Change in friend group or decrease in social activity

[Are you at risk for an eating disorder (PDF)]

If you spot these signs, Beasley says it's important to step in.

"Keep your eyes open. The stats can look very sobering if this problem goes on a long time before treatment is sought," said Beasley.

But if treatment is sought in the first year, the recovery rate is very positive, something Madison is starting to believe more and more every day.

"I am a lot happier now," she said. I think I am slowly starting to come back out to the real me."

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