How do eating disorders affect professional women?
Eating disorders are associated with teenagers, but they also affect a large amount of professional women and they may not be as obvious as you think.
Determination, ambition, striving for improvement: ironically, the same personality traits which can drive a woman to professional success can leave her vulnerable to eating disorders. Researchers from University College London found that 3% of women in their 40s and 50s had suffered from an eating disorder in the last year. Historically, eating disorders were a young woman’s problem, but middle-aged women are increasingly likely to suffer.
Eating disorders are especially dangerous because they combine serious physical repercussions with hard-to-shake psychological ramifications: up to one in five anorexics will die from the disease.
In adult women, these conditions are often triggered by stressful life events, like a high-pressure job or the birth of a child. It’s relatively rare for people to spontaneously develop eating disorders in later life; more often, women find that a stressful period in their life reactivates a long-dormant problem.
While anorexia and bulimia are the best-known eating disorders, there are others, such as binge-eating or a fear of certain foods. Even more common is disordered eating, a term for habits which match the symptoms of eating disorders but aren’t severe enough to warrant medical intervention. Common disordered eating habits include continual dieting, cutting out food groups, and dividing foods into “good” and “bad”.
Does that sound like anyone you know?
One study found that up to 65% of women aged 20 to 40 displayed some signs of disordered eating patterns, and half of all dieters were trying to get thinner despite already being at a healthy weight. In this kind of environment, it’s easy to see how a woman can slip from a diet to a disorder. When half of the office are doing the 5:2 diet or a juice cleanse, it doesn’t seem so weird to vomit up your lunch.
Most people with eating disorders go to great lengths to hide what’s happening; since middle-aged professional women don’t fit anyone’s idea of a typical sufferer, they usually find it much easier to conceal their problem. Many eating disorder treatment centres won’t even accept patients over 30, such is the pervasiveness of the idea that anorexia is a young woman’s problem. And for every woman who realises she has a problem and seeks help, many more are wrestling with their demons in private.
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