Broadway actress Pauline Frederick once said, “When a man gets up to speak, people listen then look. When a woman gets up, people look, then, if they like what they see, they listen.”
Unfortunately this is actually a very insightful observation. Women are often judged by their looks first, even when they have proven themselves in their careers. But caring about how they look is only part of the reason why women well past their teenage years are experiencing eating disorders. The pressure stemming from a high-powered career as well as the need to project the image that they can have it all may be a contributing factor to the resurgence of eating disorders in women ages 35 to 60.
The Renfrew Center, a mental-health center with locations nationwide, has experienced a 42% increase in women older than 35 coming in for help with eating disorders, as of this summer. New research is showing that people tend not to outgrow eating disorders and a high-powered career could be a trigger. A study published in July’s issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that unhealthy eating patterns that start in childhood or teen years can spill over, sometimes even intensifying, as people get older. Data from the 10-year study that followed 2,287 teens through early adulthood showed a sharp increase with age — 8.4% to 20.4% — in the number of young women resorting to extreme measures to control their weight.
“It’s rare that an eating disorder shows up completely out of the blue in midlife,” Douglas Bunnell, vice president and director of outpatient clinical services at the Renfrew Center said. Most of the middle-aged patients suffered from eating disorders when they were younger, and their disorders have been retriggered because of stresses in life, including their job.
One 39 year old software engineer said:
I would usually binge and purge when I felt as though I had no control over the situation at work. I work in a male dominated field and it was a struggle to be taken seriously by the staff. I was a technical lead at a large company and was working 12-16 hour days. When I struggled with a particular problem, whether it be with the development side or management side, I would binge and purge which would give me a sense of power and control, however, I would feel wiped out and exhausted after I did it. I also suffered from anorexia as well when I was being sexually harassed at work.
I remember when I confessed to a friend of mine a few years ago that I was bulimic, she said “Aren’t you a little old to be having an eating disorder?”. Little did she realize is that many women in their 30s with high pressure jobs suffer from eating disorders. I’m sure there are many more women who have not confessed to their eating disorders out of fear of being criticized since the stereotype is that people who suffer from eating disorders are in their teens and early 20s.
A representative from the Renfrew Center said one patient named Alison S. faced her eating disorder at age 40. She sought inpatient treatment at The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia, where she was immediately put on bed rest for three weeks. “As a Senior Vice President and Account Director for several worldwide advertising agencies, Alison reflects that job pressure and stress played a role in her self-destruction.”
Lisa Briggs, Intuitive Psychotherapist and Overeating Intervenionist and founder of IntuitiveBody.com, said that thatType A perfectionism we see in high-powered career women is already part of an eating disorder. “It is that feeling that we are never good enough,” she said.
A more common and popular cultural term for this epidemic amongst high-powered career woman trying to show that they can “have it all” is stressorexia. According to The Daily Mail, stressorexia occurs in older, motivated and intelligent women with high expectations. It is believed that the disorder may often start with a skipped lunch due to work deadlines but can quickly worsen. These women develop this condition because they live in a world where the lines between the sexes’ traditional roles have been blurred, then begin to feel that food is the only thing they can control. From Dr. Adrian Lord:
“They are trying to be sexy, fashionable and slim, have a career and be perfect mothers and wives. Some neglect to eat because they are too busy and others are just totally stressed-out – which suppresses the appetite. Fifty years ago, women just had to be a good mother. Now they have to do everything and they can’t abdicate. As a result, they feel very anxious and this can cause them to try and keep control of their food, which can lead to drastic weight loss and cause them insidiously to slip into an anorexic-type situation. It is very much a modern-day phenomenon, compounded by the blurred roles of men and women. Basically, this ailment is a combination of depression, anxiety and anorexic-type symptoms. Women with it need thorough assessment to get to the underlying issues.”
Briggs said a lot of women are faced with a perfect storm of changes in culture and women’s roles. More women are supporting families now and are the main breadwinners, she said. From her experience with high-powered female clients she has found that addictive behaviors are very common, especially on the bulimia and laxative side. Many of her clients, especially entrepreneurs in the entertainment field, feel that they have to look better.
“It is excruciatingly painful because they are perceived as having it all but behind the scenes they have a dirty little secret. The tension between how people perceive them and who they really are is tough.”
The representative from the Renfrew Center said with the growing need amongst middle-aged women, Renfrew developed a specific treatment group called “Thirty-Something and Beyond” which offers women 30+ the opportunity to work with experienced therapists and their peers to explore the stresses that may trigger their eating disorder.
This obviously only happens to some women just like it only happens to some teenage girls but it is a response to the work-life balance struggle. Unfortunately, it is an extreme one.
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