For nearly 40 years, Sharon Pikus hid what she calls her “dirty little secret”: After an adolescent case of whooping cough caused her to vomit everything she ate, she turned the experience into a trick to lose weight. “I was always a chubbette as a kid, so I said to myself, ‘This is terrific — I can eat whatever I want and throw it up,’ ” recalled Pikus, now 60. She kept up the habit for decades, eventually having to hide it from her husband and children. Even as other parts of her life were in place — her family was happy, her business was successful — her bulimia lurked under the surface, an overwhelming compulsion.
About seven of us have gathered for group therapy in a large room scattered with chairs. A woman with frizzy red hair and a head that looks several sizes too big for her emaciated body sits across from me. Next to her, a statuesque blonde has a polished demeanor that belies the fact that, after lunch, staff members will try to keep her from going to the bathroom to vomit.
As a loving and concerned parent, you may notice that when your daughter enters puberty she will gain weight. Most of this gain is due to her body developing and preparing her to grow taller; the weight usually precedes the growth spurt. A healthy adolescent may gain anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds. Because there is so much focus on weight and body size in our culture, however, adolescents are not given the opportunity to go through these changes with the weight fluctuations that are necessary for normal development. This is the time that most eating disorders start. Over the years, I have heard my clients say that they started their eating disorder between the ages of 11 and 15 years old. Most started with a diet or over-exercising.
The New York Times article last week about the explosion of anorexia and eating disorders in the orthodox community highlights a tragedy that has long been buried. About four years ago I published a column about an eighteen-year-old girl my daughter knew at seminary in Jerusalem who died of anorexia. The seminary denied it was the cause and cited some other illness, even though the girls at the seminary watched her wasting away with the administration seemingly oblivious.