Advocates work to bring eating disorders out of darkness
By Susan Frick Carlman ~ email@example.com April 2, 2011 3:32PM
The newly released book co-authored by Naperville psychologist Dr. Maria Rago, “Shut Up, Skinny Bitches!,” takes aim at popular culture’s persistent message that thinness is crucial to life satisfaction.
The title is derived from a successful series of books that celebrate the svelte and focus on eliminating many common foods from the diet as a way of shaving off pounds.
Rago bristles at the idea of reinforcing the thin-is-in mantra, but she also has a hard time with the stigmatizing of those who struggle with the very real problem of eating disorders.
“I think it’s perceived as something to make fun of,” Rago said. “It’s upsetting to think of, but if you look in the tabloids, people who are sometimes mocked, you can see it.”
Available in paper or electronic form, the book can be purchased through Barnes & Noble or Amazon, or at shutupskinnybitches.info.
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
By the time they reach middle school, most kids have been taught enough about drug and alcohol abuse that they can rattle off a list of addictive substances without giving the question much thought. Not so many can identify the factors that are causing that kid in the lunch room to shun food every single day.
Up to 24 million Americans suffer with an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. The agency, based in Naperville, reports that 95 percent of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.8.
But just a fraction of those who struggle with food — about half of whom meet the criteria for clinical depression — have sought treatment for the restricting, binge-ing, purging and compulsive overeating that are the disorders’ signatures.
For the past year and a half, a program spearheaded by ANAD has been working to change that by bringing speakers into area high school and middle school classrooms to share their firsthand experiences with eating disorders. It’s an effort to break down the misconceptions and stigmas that often deter young people from reaching out for the help they need to cease the behaviors.
Ariana Carlson, who was 12 the first time she underwent inpatient treatment for her eating disorders at Linden Oaks at Edward in Naperville, relates to teens what that dark time of her life was like.
“It’s so important to address them when they’re young, because even if they aren’t struggling with it, they might know someone who’s having trouble,” said Carlson, now 20 and a sophomore studying social work and psychology at Aurora University.
According to ANAD staff member Rosanna Catapano, the been-there accounts usually strike a chord in the classroom. The question-and-answer portion of the presentations tends to be lively.
“That’s one thing that really hits those kids, because as soon as they finish speaking, those hands go flying,” Catapano said.
The idea of eating-disorders education is finding support in Washington. A bill introduced in January by U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Hinsdale, would mandate curriculum changes that incorporate education about eating disorders. Now in committee, the Eating Disorders Awareness, Prevention, and Education Act of 2011 also would require a federal study assessing the impact of eating disorders on educational success.
“Rep. Biggert’s bill allows states and localities to use federal funds to develop and design their own awareness and prevention programs, which include role modeling, teacher training and mentoring,” said Biggert spokesman Zachary Cikanek in an email. “The bill expands the allowable uses of the Innovative Education Strategic Block Grant program to include such programs.”
A significant amount of the ANAD program’s classroom time is aimed at debunking myths. One teaching aid sometimes used is a video featuring a guy named Patrick, who shares his recovery from an eating disorder.
“We show that to the young men, so they understand it doesn’t affect only women,” said Carlson, who attended Steeple Run Elementary and Kennedy Junior High School before moving from Naperville to Oswego in eighth grade. “It’s not just the emaciated girl who looks like a Barbie doll.”
Linden Oaks is a strong supporter of ANAD and its initiatives, said Dr. Maria Rago, who directs its eating disorders program and has sat on the ANAD board for many years. It was Rago who suggested Carlson as a spokesperson for the school visits. Her message helps counter some of the misconceptions that flow through popular culture.
“I think it gives people more of an idea what it’s all about. People expect a skeleton to walk in, but it’s really more about what you’ve been through in your life,” Rago said. “Ari, I think, is a wonderful person to have doing this, because she’s fully recovered for several years. She brings that hope to people.”
It has been four years since Carlson needed aggressive treatment for her eating issues and their underlying causes, which can include depression, anxiety and insufficient ability to cope with stress. She cautions newly recovered people from jumping into outreach work immediately. Rago thinks it’s advice worth taking.
“If you’re a rookie at recovery, you might have some slip-ups, or you might not be fully recovered,” she said. When the message comes from someone who has been symptom-free for a long while, “people can see that recovery can last.”
Rago co-authored a new book titled “Shut Up, Skinny Bitches!” The slim volume takes on many of the myths that persist, as well as much of the negative self-talk that enables people to justify abusing themselves through their eating patterns. Those factors help perpetuate negative stereotypes that can put hurdles between people and recovery. One of the myths is that eating disorders don’t ever really go away.
“Sometimes people think it’s like an addiction, that once you have it, you’ll always have it, but actually you can move on,” Rago said.
That’s a recurring theme in Carlson’s presentations. Along with encouraging teens to speak to an adult if they see a friend struggling with food, she stresses the importance of looking forward and moving on.
“I try to say, ‘Whatever it is you’re going through now, three or four years from now it’s going to feel a lot different,’” she said. “It’s not forever. You’re still going to have a normal life, a healthy life.”