Sara slipped her tiny body into her beautiful, pink leotard, anticipating another ballet class. After putting on her matching ballet slippers she imagined she was a princess…until she looked at herself in the mirror.
Sara first heard “the voice,” the one that told her she was fat—much bigger than the other girls—the one that said she’d never be a real ballerina, at the tender age of five. She didn’t know how to discern this voice. As she grew into a teen, the voice became louder and stronger and she eventually developed an eating disorder.

“Being a princess isn't all it's cracked up to be,” stated the late Princess Diana. Bulimia was revealed as Diana’s “secret disease” in Andrew Morton’s book, Diana: Her True Story. She admitted she began to follow a strict diet after people made comments about her “pudgy” appearance. Once she started dieting, she couldn’t stop. Food became the answer to the hurt and emptiness she felt.
In this culture, an obsession with food and dieting can often be mistaken for a healthy lifestyle choice. We’re often praised for working out three hours a day or having the willpower to eat teeny-tiny meals. We can download applications to help us count each calorie we ingest. These are deceptive traps disguised as a potentially deadly eating disorder—and they are ready to take over your child’s life.

Eating disorders are often taken too lightly. The symptoms are brushed off as an attention-seeking device or a fad that the person will eventually grow out of. This is usually not the case. Let me tell you personally, no one chooses to have an eating disorder, nor is it a "lifestyle" choice or a case of vanity. Eating disorders are serious with severe medical, nutritional, and psychological consequences. In December, 2010 the French model and actress Isabelle Caro died at the age of twenty-eight after battling anorexia for years. At one stage she weighed just fifty-five pounds.

The fact is, troubling reports confirm to a greater extent teens are being held captive to this dreadful disorder. One high school boy complained, “Why do all the girls I like end up having eating disorders?” They want to be thin, because it represents success and love and power—which, of course, is a lie. The personal history is usually associated with low self-worth and self-esteem.
For Stacey Prussman, her eating disorders were born on Broadway at age ten. With her parents at her side, she auditioned for the part of Orphan Annie. In front of judges, she climbed onstage and belted out a pitch-perfect “Tomorrow.” One judge responded, “You know, kid, you have a really good voice, but there are no fat Annie’s [on Broadway].” In her mind, the only solution was to diet. And once she started dieting she couldn’t stop because of the pressure to be thin.

Dieting is the most common behavior that leads to an eating disorder. Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Expert and Vice President, Health and Medical Education at Discovery Channel, stated more than a third of normal dieters develop an eating disorder.

Most disturbing is that in 2009, the government published data showing that children under twelve-years-old were the fastest-growing population of patients hospitalized for eating disorders. The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness website states, “Eating disorders affect up to 24 million Americans and 70 million individuals worldwide.” Eating disorder patients have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Twenty percent of people will die prematurely from complications related to their disease.
According to statistics compiled by The Renfrew Center, a network of residential facilities for the treatment of women with eating disorders:
• Approximately half (40 to 60 percent) of high school girls are on a diet.
• 13 percent of high school girls binge and purge (bulimia).
• 30 to 40 percent of junior high girls worry about their weight.

Otherwise healthy teenage girls who diet regularly show worrying signs of malnutrition, researchers have found. Dieting can cause teenagers serious harm, potentially preventing them from developing properly. Calcium deficiency is a large concern.

Data compiled by other organizations indicate:
• 90 percent of people with anorexia or bulimia are females between the ages of twelve and twenty-five.
• It is estimated that 11 percent of high school students have been diagnosed with an eating disorder.
• TIME magazine reported that 80 percent of all children have been on a diet by the time they reach the fourth grade.
• Almost half of nine to eleven-year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets. Over 80 percent of their family members are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets. Note the connection!
• The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality stated hospitalizations for eating disorders jumped by 119 percent between 1999 and 2006 for children under the age of twelve. About 10 percent of teens with an eating disorder are boys, and the number is growing.
• The 2009-2010 Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service Report states that adolescent girls accounted for 90 percent of all admissions with eating disorders.

In most junior and senior high schools, students are dieting even though, on average, they are not overweight. "I always wanted to be the good girl. Good girls are skinny and happy. The bad girls are the fat ones," answered an eleven-year-old when asked why she starved herself to the point of hospitalization.

Though statistics vary, most clinicians and dietitians agree that eating disorders are on the rise. They are a growing problem among children and the typical at-risk profile no longer fits. Given the increases in incidence and prevalence over the past decade the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stated that all adolescents and preteens should be screened. In a report published online in the December, 2010 issue of Pediatrics, the AAP urges pediatricians to consider and evaluate for anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders during regular check-ups, and to be familiar with resources for treating eating disorders in their community.

Hospitalizations for eating disorders increased most among children under twelve years from 1999 to 2006, according to a federal analysis provided in the AAP report. Those particularly at risk include athletes and performers who participate in activities where being thin is rewarded. The good news from the report is, despite the potentially more critical consequences, adolescents typically have better outcomes than adults and recover fully.

Eating disorders are pervasive among athletes. A ballerina must have more than grace and flawless technique to be successful. She must also be abnormally thin. It is a dangerous obsession for many dancers. Others have learned the image of a lean long-distance runner can be as damaging to emulate as that of a swimsuit model. Figure skating and gymnastics also seem to endorse eating disorder behaviors.

Monica Seles, famed tennis athlete, tells her story in her book, Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self. Female athletes are three to six times more likely to exhibit disordered eating than their non-athletic peers. Consequently, they may suffer lifelong physical and psychiatric complications. Not surprising, studies reveal that cheerleaders may be at higher risk for eating disorders.

Eating disorders are a serious medical condition. Nearly every aspect of an eating disorder is surrounded in secrecy, making it, at least within the early stages, very difficult to detect. Due to the shame, the person typically hides the disorder. Intervention by family and friends is usually necessary. Eating disorders impact not only the child’s health and personal relationships, but also family finances due to insurance challenges. Even people with good insurance coverage may face enormous financial struggles.
If you notice these signs in yourself, your child, or someone you know, get help quickly. Recovery is a long-term process, not a quick fix. To be truly effective, it is important that any treatment address the whole person—the physical, psychological, relational, and spiritual. The goal of treatment is to address medical and nutritional needs, promote a healthy relationship with food and God, and teach constructive ways to cope. Residential treatment or hospitalization may be necessary for some.

Author's Bio: 

Kimberly Davidson is a board certified biblical counselor, personal life coach, speaker, and founder of Olive Branch Outreach []— an organization that reaches out to thousands of people with eating disorders and negative body image by presenting biblical solutions as part of the healing process. Kimberly holds a master’s degree in specialized ministry and a bachelor’s degree in health sciences and nutrition from the University of Iowa. She is the author of four books including, I’m Beautiful? Why Can’t I See It? and Torn Between Two Masters.