New Study Says Eating Disorders Affect Older Women; I Say, “Duh”

A completely unscientific study administered by me to exactly no one finds that 9 out of 10 women my age first saw anorexia depicted onscreen in the Amy Jo Johnson made-for-TV classic, Perfect Body.

In the film, the artist formerly known as the Pink Power Ranger portrays Andie Bradley, a young gymnast who dreams of Olympic gold. But Andie’s coaches scrutinize her weight and she soon spirals into the dangerous depths of anorexia and bulimia. Not to worry, thanks to trusty melodramatic magic, all is resolved in 90 or so minutes.

Slightly older media junkies may remember Tracey Gold‘s For the Love of Nancy as their earliest exposure to eating disorders. Gold, who was in recovery from anorexia during filming, plays recent high school graduate Nancy Walsh, who copes with college stress by restricting her food and overexercising. Things aren’t exactly resolved in 90 minutes, but she seems to be out of the woods by film’s end.

What do Andie and Nancy have in common, besides being portrayed by television royalty (Felicity and Growing Pains were epic achievements in prime time, okay?)?

Female? Check. Caucasian? Yup. Young? Of course.

The media hasn’t offered much in the way of diversity when representing eating disorders. And that makes sense, I guess. There’s been a long-standing stereotype that anorexia and bulimia really only affect young, white, middle to upper-class girls.

The reality of course, is that eating disorders don’t generally care if you’re white, black, rich, poor, female, male, young or old. They don’t tend to discriminate and are pretty much equal-opportunity jerk diseases that way.

But in case anyone had their doubts about the variety of sufferers, a new study from the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine is letting us know that age is just a number when it comes to bad body image and disordered eating.

Lead author Dr. Cynthia Bulik and her colleagues surveyed nearly 1,900 women aged 50 and over and found that 13 percent of them admitted having eating disorders and 62 percent said their weight or shape negatively impacts their lives.

Maybe this comes as a shocker to some, but my initial reaction was, “And…?”

Dr. Bulik kind of felt the same way (though I don’t think she would’ve used the word “duh” as freely as I have here). She told CBS This Morning, “There’s this stereotype that eating disorders affect mainly adolescent and young adult women, but that’s not what I’ve been hearing on the street and that’s not what we’ve been seeing in the clinic.”

Bulik explained that there’s an enormous amount of pressure on older women to not look like older women. As she said rather succinctly, “There’s no niche for a grandma anymore.”

But that only really addresses the portion of women who develop disorders later in life in an attempt to maintain youthful appearances. There are plenty of other women, as Bulik points out, that are triggered by emotional events like divorce. But maybe more importantly, there are all those women who aren’t new to the eating disorder game. They’ve just never fully recovered from the diseases that struck much earlier in their lives.

I guess that’s why I’m surprised that anyone’s surprised by these findings. Aren’t we aware by now that eating disorders are chronic illnesses? That’s certainly not to say people can’t claim full recovery, and if they can, then more power to them.

But the reality is that the majority of those who survive their eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia have the highest mortality rates of any mental illnesses) must manage their diseases for the rest of their lives. So wouldn’t it make sense that women (and men) of any age are just as likely to suffer?

Despite my initial confusion over the necessity of the study, I’m really grateful Dr. Bulik pioneered the research and is speaking out on the issue. The more we talk about the prevalence of eating disorders among all kinds of people, the less power those stereotypical societal presumptions hold and the more likely it is that people of any gender, color, or age will feel okay about seeking help.

But let’s refrain from turning this revelation into a made-for-TV movie, okay?