When 22-year-old model Luisel Ramos died at a Uruguay fashion show in 2006, her body mass index was 14.5. The World Health Organization classes a BMI of 16 as “starvation.” Later that, year 21-year-old Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston died due to “complications” in her pursuit to be thin. Her weight — 40kg — was considered healthy for a 12-year-old.
The modeling industry has since taken measures to combat eating disorders, but the problem is still rife — and hardly restricted to those who make a living strolling down the catwalk.
In the developed world, anorexia is the third most common chronic illness suffered by young women; obesity is first. Although some men suffer from the problem, girls and young women are at highest risk.
According to Kathleen Pike, a professor of psychology at Temple University, Japan Campus, fully 3% of college students in Japan suffer from bulimia nervosa (vomiting after eating) and nearly 1 percent have anorexia nervosa (dangerously reducing one’s food intake).
Being a foreigner in Japan can act as a trigger. “Members of the foreign community are typically larger than the Japanese,” says Pike. When they come here, “they sometimes find they can’t buy clothes — going to a store only to find they are ‘too big.’”
However, one member of the Tokyo branch of Overeaters Anonymous (OA) — a 12-step help program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous — notes that if you’ve got an eating disorder, the problem’s roots normally lie deeper than the country you’re in.
“Eating disorders typically start from dieting due to body dissatisfaction,” says Pike. “No one ever thinks it will develop into a disorder… Over time, the behavioral component becomes fixed, the secrecy interferes with social functioning, and the disorder impacts on physical health and intellectual capacity.”
Other problems include menstrual dysfunction, dental problems such as rotting teeth, organ damage, infertility, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and in extreme cases, like those of Ramos and Reston, death.
So what should you do if you have an eating problem or are concerned about a friend or family member? “Despite an increased awareness among health professionals, the resources are still limited here,” says Pike. “But there are treatments that work, and the sooner you get treatment the better your chances of recovery.”
For English support, contacting Tokyo English Life Line (TELL) is a good starting point. The NPO provides a free, anonymous hotline, and can put you in touch with one of its staff for professional face-to-face counseling in English, Japanese, German, Portuguese or Spanish.
OA, meanwhile, is open to people with all types of eating disorders, providing support through hour-long meetings twice a week, on Saturday and Sunday. Participants discuss the reasons behind their problem, a specific topic (such as “fear”), or one of the 12 steps. Each person is allocated a few minutes to speak without having to worry about anyone commenting on what they say. New members are allowed to just sit and listen, or join in if they like. As the group is entirely anonymous; members do not repeat what is said at a meeting, or even acknowledge each other if they meet in public.
Another option for those with eating disorders is to consult with a professional. Trained psychologists like Pike or local psychotherapist Hiroko Mizushima can provide valuable guidance through counseling.
Pike recommends that if you think someone close to you may have an eating disorder, you should “convey empathy and communicate that you care and are worried when approaching him or her about it. Don’t accuse them or make assumptions, and don’t be surprised if they are not immediately forthcoming about it; your caring may eventually be a critical component to mobilizing him/her to seek treatment in due time.”
Eating disorders — and the reasons behind them — may be complex but the illness is treatable, and with the right help and with time, patients can regain a healthy attitude towards food.
TELL Tel: 03-5774-0992. Free anonymous support by phone daily from 9 a.m.-11 p.m. www.telljp.com
Academy for Eating Disorders www.aedweb.org
Eating Disorder and Referral Information Center www.edreferral.com
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today