Images of stylish, smiling celebrities are all over the Internet. Sexy, skinny models grace the pages of almost every woman's magazine.
The quest to be flawless is all around us, and cases of anorexia and bulimia are growing at an alarming rate.
"I started throwing up when I was 12 years old," says Lexi Jacobson, a West Hartford mom who is sharing her story during Eating Disorder Awareness Month. "It was diet, it was managing things, it was handling stress."
The condition worsened during law school, and Jacobson continued to make herself vomit for a shocking 27 years. But after adopting newborn twins, she knew she had to change.
"I didn't want to pass that on to Rachel, I just didn't want to," says Jacobson, referring to her daughter.
Despite dizzy spells and ingesting boxes of laxatives, Jacobson always felt immune to the dangers of bulimia. But during a monthlong stay at a New Jersey medical facility after several years of trying to get better, she learned she was in denial. She received one-on-one psychiatric help and group therapy to manage her control issues, as well as nutritional counseling. This approach worked, and 5 years later Jacobson has not returned to her former way of life.
"I certainly feel better physically and I've just learned different things to cope with stress," she says.
"Society is getting tougher and more complex," says Dr. Michael Gutman, Medical director of the New England Urgent Care Centers in West Hartford, Enfield and Simsbury. Gutman believes that girls with eating disorders often don't want to grow up or are on a pathological pursuit of the perfect appearance.
"It's one of the leading causes of death for women between age 15 and 40," he says. According to the American Heart Association, 20 percent of people suffering from anorexia or bulimia will die if not treated. "Fortunately, if you recognize it in adolescence, there is a lot of hope," says Gutman.
Warning signs go beyond dramatic weight loss and distorted body image. Teens with eating disorders often over-do physical activity by running or exercising until extreme exhaustion. Anorexia sometimes causes menstruation to stop, while bulimia can change the appearance of tooth enamel. Parents can encourage healthy self-esteem in their kids by not demanding constant perfection or being critical of their appearance. While this is mostly a female issue, 10 percent of those suffering from an eating disorder are males.
Rachel, now 9 and an avid ballroom dancer, doesn't yet know about her mom's former eating disorder. Jacobson, concerned about the pressure in the dance world to be thin, plans to be honest with her daughter when she is a little older. She also wants other troubled girls to know that they're not alone: "That there is just another way to handle things. It doesn't have to be abusing your body. You don't have to suffer to get through life."