- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006

Notice how it’s not just young actresses a la Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie who are thinning as dramatically as sheep at spring shearing? It’s the older ones, too, the thirty- and fortysomethings, the Teri Hatchers of the world. Well, you say, they have to be thin to make it in that cutthroat entertainment business of theirs.

But it’s not just them. It’s us, too.

Eating disorders are ballooning in older age groups, not just in Hollywood, but among American women overall, says Cynthia Bulik, director of the UNC Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“We’re seeing an increasing number of older women at our treatment centers. … Women in their 30s, 40s and 50s,” says Ms. Bulik, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology.

Some of these women are recurring cases; others have been on the eating-disorders threshold for a long time; and a third group constitutes new, onset cases.

“There’s a sense that aging gracefully isn’t good enough,” Ms. Bulik says. “That you should be doing more. That you should be resculpting yourself into a younger woman. … And if you don’t, you’re somehow not all you can be.”

Mindy Mintz, a stay-at-home mother of three sons all in elementary school, says that in her McLean neighborhood, there definitely is pressure among women to stay thin and attractive, no matter what the age.

“I know a lot of people who are completely obsessed. They go to the gym every day,” says Mrs. Mintz, 41, who is naturally thin and says she’s never had an eating disorder. “If they don’t get to go, they get depressed. They somehow think that being thin is going to make them happy.”

Though Mrs. Mintz doesn’t think the route to happiness is quite that direct and simple, she agrees that women who are attractive and slim get better treatment, whether they’re ordering iced tea at a restaurant or bringing in their cars for tuneups.

“I hate to so say it, but you do get treated better,” she says.

Yet as we strive toward equality, shouldn’t women’s worth be tied to something beyond beauty and thinness?

“Well, that’s the irony of it all, isn’t it?” says Kandi Stinson, a professor of sociology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. “That women in this day and age would have more venues to prove themselves. That attractiveness and thinness wouldn’t matter anymore. But that hasn’t happened. …

“A woman has to be thin and attractive in addition to being a supermom and/or a professional. The standard is very different — more flexible — for men,” says Ms. Stinson, author of “Women and Dieting Culture: Inside a Commercial Weight-Loss Group.”

You’re not immune to that expectation even if you are uber-rich, like “Harry Potter” novelist J.K. Rowling. The Daily Telegraph in London says Miss Rowling lamented about women’s obsession with thinness on her Web site.

Miss Rowling described bumping into a woman she had not seen for three years, who immediately commented on her slimmer figure, the paper reported. The last time they had seen each other, Miss Rowling had just had a baby.

“What I felt like saying was, ‘I’ve produced my third child and my sixth novel since I last saw you. Aren’t either of those things more important, more interesting, than my size?’ But no — my waist looked smaller. Forget the kid and the book: finally, something to celebrate,” she wrote on her site, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Celine-Marie Pascale, an associate professor of sociology at American University, says the gender discrepancy becomes particularly clear if you look at media personalities.

“Name five women of size who are esteemed,” Ms. Pascale says. “I can only think of one, CNN’s Candy Crowley.”

Five men of size on television? They’re certainly easier to produce, but this doesn’t mean there is no pressure on men. The rate of anorexia among men is rising also, but the numbers still are much smaller.

“Historically, men’s social value has never been based on appearance,” Ms. Pascale says. “It’s been about wealth, creativity, intelligence. And for the most part, it still is.”

She says the images of skinny and attractive women are so pervasive in all media outlets that viewers and readers are not even conscious of the saturation.

“These images are so frequent that they become what we think of as normal,” Ms. Pascale says. “Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan. We see them every day, and they start looking normal to us — but what they actually represent is completely unrealistic.”

Not only are these women thin, portrayed as attractive and very rich, but their images are further enhanced through airbrushing and other techniques, making their appearance even more unattainable and unrealistic.

“I wish we had a better defense against this barrage,” Ms. Bulik says, “and that people knew what these celebrities actually looked like.”

The images further perpetuate women’s often unrealistic ideas about how they should look, she says.

To compare, the average American woman is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 140 pounds, while the average American female model is 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs 117 pounds, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

“I think the appearance stress is greater than ever before,” Ms. Bulik says.

Why are women caught up in all this?

Eating disorders are complex, she says. There is a strong genetic factor, which accounts for the liability or predisposition to get anorexia or bulimia, but the triggers often are environmental, she says.

“The triggers keep coming later in life. So, someone who is genetically vulnerable may only express the disorder later in life, when she starts exercising obsessively after a divorce and a perception that the only way she will make it back to the dating scene is by losing 20 pounds,” Ms. Bulik says.

The data is not conclusive, but researchers have linked eating disorders to anxiety and a drive toward perfectionism, she says.

Katrina Gay, spokeswoman for the Arlington-based National Alliance on Mental Illness, knows firsthand of this connection. She says she had a two-year struggle with anorexia in her 20s that was caused mainly by anxiety.

“Denying myself food was my way of dealing with [performance] pressure and worry,” Ms. Gay says.

She says she thinks this pressure to perform only increases as women get older and they are trying to balance career and family while still being “vibrant, slim, attractive and fashionable.”

“We feel like we have to be perfect in all aspects of our lives,” says Ms. Gay, who emphasizes that her statements are her own and not representative of NAMI.

“Our appearance is one thing we think we can control, but we can only do so much,” she says. “Nature is still nature.”

Ms. Bulik sees many patients who strive for perfection, and one of her treatment exercises is to “practice without being perfect.”

“We have unrealistic ideas about what will happen if we’re not perfect,” she says. “I tell them to go shopping without wearing makeup or only to give 110 percent instead of 130 percent at work. It’s terrifying for them. They’re surprised when other people don’t even notice the difference.”

So, people bring this on themselves?

Mrs. Mintz wonders if some women in her neighborhood have too much time on their hands, and Ms. Gay says she thinks women, in a way, have put themselves in this position by trying to “have it all.”

Ms. Stinson says part of the responsibility lies with women, but society’s saturation with the thin beauty ideal also has something to do with it.

“And lets face it, there are industries — from producers of low-fat products to gyms — that make millions of dollars on this,” she says.

In the end, Ms. Bulik hopes a more tempered ideal will prevail.

“It doesn’t have to be that you’re either thin and attractive or old and frumpy,” she says. “We can care about our appearance without having personal trainers and working out eight hours a day.”

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