As a specialist in women’s mental health, I am often asked, “does one ever recover from an eating disorder?”

To this the answer is a resounding yes, provided one learns  to set realistic expectations,  discovers alternative ways to nourish themselves physically and emotionally and devel ops alternative ways of coping with stress . Easier said than done but, it is doable.

Women’s relationship to their bodies has been described by researchers as a ‘normative discontent’, it is the rare women who simply smiles at her reflection.  Rather, our bodies become canvases on which aspirations for perfection are drawn or efforts to achieve greater confidence and control are projected. Its no surprise that for many eating becomes dis-ordered.  While there are several ‘official’ eating pathologies (Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating and the catch all: Eating Disorders not otherwise specified) many women struggle each day with what to eat (or not), how much to exercise and how quickly they can get results from the latest fad diet.

Eating disorders are typically identified with younger women — also educated, western and Caucasian — gaining years doesn’t necessarily equate with gaining immunity from eating issues. In fact abnormal eating is quite democratic.  I often speak about  the more invisible risk factors, the three M’s : maturity, minorities and men.

As a clinician, I tell people they can overcome an eating disorder. But  my response to the wish that one can simply ‘outgrow’ an eating problem is a bit more guarded. There are many women who wish that their problems will disappear or alternatively that their struggles will be invisible. They hope that  no one will notice that they are skipping meals, preparing for their family but not sitting down, using the excuse of serving others to hide self-starvation. In some instances, the distress signal is sounded only when bones start  deteriorating (osteoporosis) or a child is identified for treatment .

There are also women who ‘discover’ eating disorders later in life. These include not only anorexic behaviors but also extreme body dysmorphia such as repeated plastic surgeries and peels.   There are a myriad of precipitants to such behavior; akin to the teenager anorexic who wants to arrest their development in childhood, more mature women are also often  seeking to stop time.  Transitions are generally  difficult for many, and redefining oneself in a new role once children are grown or careers have moved to a new level etc can lead women to finding comfort in the rituals of body management.

For others, the struggle ‘sneaks up’ on them.  The wicked sidekick to  extreme efforts at weight control is binge eating; many women chasing the elusive ten-pound weight loss become caught in a vicious cycle of eating and starving. I often hear reasonable women reporting ‘surprise’ that they overeat (binge) several times a week. They insist that they can beat biology. But in the end, our bodies want to survive, and the sense of eating out of control is simply a basic animal instinct to get the calories needed for sustenance.  The needed intervention, eating enough and often enough, seems counter-intuitive to the person seeking to ‘just lose a little’ yet the solution is just that simple. Hunger can be your friend, you just have to listen to it!

There are many ways that transitions and the new found freedom of redefinition can work for women. Food and body obsessions can provide structure and a sense of identity but it is a shallow one.  Focusing on what you can do with your body and  other acquired competencies, rather than recreating your appearance leads to instrumental not ornamental power—a much more impactful outcome than simply  a positive reflection in the mirror.

Melanie Katzman has served as a corporate coach, developer and lecturer for leading
international businesses and world renowned institutions for over
twenty years.  During the course of her career she has explored how
people, personalities and behavior patterns impact results and through
the international coaching consortium she founded 10 years ago, Katzman
Consulting, she has worked to inspire individuals, unite teams and
align organizations.Melanie’s pioneering work defining, treating
and advocating for women’s mental health concerns has resulted in five
books, countless articles and close collaborations with media and local
governments in the U.S. and abroad.  Melanie is on the faculty at the
Weill-Cornell Medical School in New York City and the University of
London, England and sits on the task force to achieve parity for female
faculty as part of her work with the University of Pennsylvania’s
Trustee’s Council.  She received a doctorate in Psychology and is
certified in the U.S. and chartered in the U.K. Melanie lives in New
York City with her husband and two teenage children.

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  • Joanna Poppink, MFT March 23, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    Yes, I agree that eating disorder recovery is possible. I like what Dr. Katzman has to say about eating, body image and personal competencies.
    However, I believe that an individual needs to experience emotional healing and psychological development with love and support before she can live a life truly free from her eating disorder.