Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Eating disorders and self-esteem

The question I've been chewing on lately is this: What's the connection between eating disorders and self-esteem?

Does low self-esteem lead to, contribute to, or cause eating disorders? Conversely, does boosting self-esteem make one less susceptible to e.d.s?

I started thinking about this after following a link to an interview on Studio 2B, which bills itself as "a site for teens." The interview is with Scarlett Pomers, a 17-year-old actress who was treated for anorexia in 2005 and is now involved with the National Eating Disorders Association. In it, Pomers reinforces the link between positive body image, self-esteem, and health. She quotes some scary statistics--half of all girls between ages 12 and 14 say they're unhappy because they're too fat--and offers earnest suggestions for teens who may know someone with an e.d. or who may themselves be struggling with one.

All to the good. I do believe the more we talk about eating disorders, the less stigma is attached to them. But I'm not sure about the connection with self-esteem.

Before anorexia (and now again, as she's in recovery) I would have described my daughter as confident, smart, funny, outgoing, and emotionally astute. Her descent into anorexia did not seem connected with low self-esteem. On the contrary, she seemed to develop low self-esteem--along with a slew of other problems--only after becoming anorexic.

I don't want to knock efforts like NEDA's and others to try to boost girls' self-esteem. It's not a bad thing in this post-Reviving Ophelia culture. I'm wondering, though, if efforts like this are enough, or speak to the right point.

At the very least, shouldn't they be paired with education around nutrition--not the deluge of anti-obesity propaganda that now passes for "wellness education" but a clear, matter of fact explanation of what teens need to eat in order to be healthy? It wouldn't hurt to have a unit on, say, how and why diets don't work, too.

I don't know that this will prevent anorexia and bulimia in those who are susceptible. Maybe it would be a good start, though.

I would really like to hear what other people think on this subject.