Starving themselves to stay in control

For more middle-aged women, bumps on road of life lead to eating disorders


Growing up, Becky Marsella was an active girl and a popular teenager. She was in the school band and had many friends. At home, she was well-loved and well-fed. Fond of comfort foods - fried-chicken, macaroni and cheese, roasts and rice and gravy - Marsella never got to be more than about 115 pounds.

Regarding her weight, she was, you might say, one of the lucky ones.

But something happened six years ago when Marsella, of Lakeland, Fla., turned 40.

Inexplicably, she says, her happy life began to feel out of control. A nagging despair crept in. Like many women, Marsella thought, "If I could just lose a little weight, I'll feel better."

So she began to walk and then to diet. Walking turned to jogging. Dieting turned to starving.

When 5-foot-6 Marsella reached a pre-pubescent 58 pounds, no one was calling her lucky anymore.

With every calorie counted and with each pound lost, Marsella was earning a spot on the fast-growing roster of women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who have developed eating disorders - long thought to be an illness that almost exclusively affected adolescents.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Health & Science section listed an incorrect address for the Center for Eating Disorders. The center is at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson.

Experts say that adult women are developing eating disorders - such as anorexia and bulimia, as well as related illnesses, such as exercise addiction - at alarming rates.

These days, media images are sending messages that a 45-year-old body can - and should - look like a 25-year-old body.

Think Demi Moore, Goldie Hawn, Kim Cattrall, Teri Hatcher. In magazines and on television, women aren't aging gracefully. They're barely aging at all.

At the Remuda Ranch Treatment Center in Arizona - considered one of the leading treatment centers for eating disorders in the nation - doctors say they have seen the numbers of women in their 30s and 40s with newly developed disorders jump 300 percent to 400 percent in the last three years.

Dr. Harry Brandt, director of the Center for Eating Disorders at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, says he's seeing four to five times as many older women with eating disorders.

Because experts are calling this an "emerging phenomenon," to date there are no statistics or published studies documenting the severity of the problem. But doctors say that clinical observations indicate that adult-onset eating disorders are occurring with much greater frequency.

"It was rare in the past that we would see people in their 40s and 50s developing severe eating disorder syndromes," Brandt says. "I'm seeing many, many more now. Our society has become so appearance-conscious, we're probably recruiting people to develop eating disorders who otherwise wouldn't have even 10 years ago."

Karen L. Smith, a clinical social worker and director of Full Living: Resources for Celebrating Body and Self, an education and consulting service based in Philadelphia, says that the current beauty aesthetic of thinness is relatively new.

"It's not like everyone always thought that really skinny women were beautiful. In fact, quite the opposite," says Smith. "It's pretty unusual to have a beauty aesthetic that's emaciated. "We're supposed to get bigger as we get older. That's part of why our metabolism slows down. So the amount of dieting older women have to do to get an emaciated body, if women are trying to maintain the beauty ideal now, they're going to have to start starving themselves a little."

For many older women, however, the slow decline from a balanced diet and moderate exercise to an eating disorder had little to do with a desire to look like a Desperate Housewife. Instead, it was a feeling of desperation that spawned the disease, or a sense of hopelessness. Loss of control, most report, was the primary catalyst.

"There's not really one specific thing that set if off - depression, frustration throughout the years, little marital problems, a teenaged daughter, stress at work," says Marsella, who ended up hospitalized, and, now 46 and 80 pounds, still hasn't gotten strong enough to return to work.

"I felt like I didn't have control of my life, whether it be emotionally, physically, mentally," she adds. "This was something I could control within me that no one could take away from me."

Weak from daily meals of only handfuls of grapes and salads of iceberg lettuce, and exercising sometimes three times a day, Marsella would occasionally pass out in the shower. She had to use both hands to lift her legs when getting dressed. Still, she thought she was healthy.

"These are people whose lives feel out of control, and so they've decided to focus on their weight and their bodies," says Edward Cumella, director of research and education at Remuda Ranch Treatment Center. "[The thinking is,] if I can whip my body into control, I can feel like something is in control. Thin equals successful in our society, regardless of age."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.