About 7 million American girls and women suffer from eating disorders and 86 percent of them develop the illness as teenagers.
The words of Psalm 139 inspire Christians to celebrate the amazing wonders of our bodies and God's tender loving attention to each detail. The dynamics of daily life, however, along with unrealistic portrayals of ideal body weights and shapes in the media are threatening an increasing number of adolescent girls to engage in unhealthy weight loss or gain.
Almost unheard of 40 years ago, there are three core eating disorders identified today by the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" :
• Anorexia nervosa -- a preoccupation with weight gain and a resistance to maintaining a normal weight for age and height;
• Bulimia nervosa -- recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by inappropriate compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain, such as vomiting or abusing laxatives; and
• Binge-eating disorder -- excessive overeating without the use of compensatory behaviors.
Much like chemical dependency, eating disorders appear to have both biological and environmental components. Psychological theory focuses on underlying emotional pain as central and reflecting one of seven possible scenarios: (1) a single traumatic event (2) a two- or three-year period of unusual stress or pain, (3) an extended period of emotional pain, (4) onset of a mood disorder, (5) a very sensitive child, (6) a controlling environment and (7) invalidated feelings.
As we focus on spiritual development in our faith communities, we need to be proactive in nurturing the health and balance of our overall mental, emotional and physical well-being.
As you acknowledge the personal nature of these illnesses, consider reaching out to youth, adults and their families in some of the following ways.
• Embrace the youth or adults and their families in prayer and nurture their integrity in your faith community. Acknowledge their infirmity and God's healing presence through your practical and appropriate care.
• Be mindful of your own individual attitudes toward women, their appearance and their role or significance in our society and faith communities. Be careful of messages that categorize and nurture relationships that celebrate the unique gifts each individual has to offer.
• Strengthen a person's sense of belonging and significance as you relay messages of God's immeasurable love for them through healthy and caring relationships with people in your faith community.
• Contact a local medical or mental health center to gather appropriate brochures to display in places that are accessible to teens and adults of all ages.
• Use your congregation’s newsletter as an ongoing vehicle for sharing information about eating disorders and other health issues. Invite a mental-health professional to be a guest speaker in a youth or adult class to describe symptoms and recommendations for appropriate referrals, peer care and support.
• Be proactive in your partnerships with parents regarding possible symptoms or behaviors that might be associated with an eating disorder. Provide ready access to appropriate referrals in your community.