DENVER—Stories about eating disorders are ubiquitous in the news: celebrity confessions, from recent ones like U.S. Olympic ice skater Nancy Kerrigan to boy band One Direction’s Zayn Malik, reignite the public’s interest for a time. Science and psychological journals also help garner interest in the subject from a study on the impact of Instagram on body image to a genetic link in anorexia to a study on the increase in body dissatisfaction among young Indian women. But the condition, which according to the U.S.’s National Eating Disorder Association affects around 20 million women and 10 million men at some point during their lives, regularly flies under the radar. In an effort to keep stories about eating disorders in the limelight, she-files recently interviewed Mindy Solomon, the clinical program director for the Eating Disorders Program at Children’s Hospital Colorado. Ms. Solomon shares her thoughts about eating disorders, why it affects girls at increasingly younger ages and her pet hypothesis—a possible link between giftedness in children and eating disorders. EXCERPTS
KIRSCH FELDKAMP: What led you to focus your work on this subject?
SOLOMAN: It started for me as a women’s issue. I was a gifted kid and I really struggled with body image and different eating habits. And then [in my Ph.D. program] I met a woman who wanted to do a study on eating disorders and asked if I wanted to help. Where I went from there regarding eating disorders was [asking] why do some people develop this and why do some people not when pervasively we have this body-dissatisfied culture, we have this eating-dysfunction culture, we have this dieting culture, and we have this it’s-not-okay-to-be-who-you-want-to-be culture. [And] I was always drawn to working with kids and teenagers.
You were a gifted child. Did that lead you to focus some of your research on a relationship between giftedness and eating disorders?
You know, that was serendipity, to be honest. I think I was identified as gifted as a kid but it wasn’t a huge part of my life. I never really trusted it and never really thought I was smart. When I finished graduate school my husband had a connection with someone at the Gifted Development Center in Denver and [they needed] testers. I thought, “Great, that seems like something I can do.” I met Linda Silverman [the center’s director] and fireworks and lightbulbs went off in my mind.
Did your experience with gifted children lead to any revelations when you began working with children who have eating disorders?
When I went to Children’s Hospital, I didn’t expect that I was taking my gifted expertise with me. It was just something I had. As I’ve grown in this profession, in this field, and have worked with so many of these kids and experienced the overlap [between giftedness and eating disorders], it’s startling to me. But, it’s not the intellect, and that’s all that I’ve found really when I’ve looked into this. People have studied IQs and eating disorders to see if there is a correlation and [they haven’t found one]. I don’t think that it’s been done with kids and teenagers. But regardless of that, my observation is that it’s not about the IQ per say. That’s not the problem. The problem is everything else. The problem is the sensitivity, the awareness, the, “Why is it that I cry when I watch the news and I’m so affected by this stuff and everybody else seems to slough it off?” “Why do I take things so to heart?” “Why are people constantly telling me to lighten up and get over it and I’m too sensitive and I’m over analyzing?” That’s what I have found to be so startling about the kids that I work with in eating disorders. They are maybe identified as gifted in these things and maybe not, but so many of them have those gifted sensibilities—the intensity, the over-excitabilities.
Do you see more girls with eating disorders than boys?
We do. It’s about 85% girls that we see in our program. In treatment, about 13% to 15% are boys across the age span. We see really young boys–sometimes seven, eight–all the way through teenage boys. I’d say younger boys are more common than older teenage boys. And sometimes it’s a pretty typical presentation of anorexia–like restricting anorexia. Other times it’s more atypical [involving] a lot of rigidity around eating [but] not necessarily to lose weight or gain weight or to get muscular. It’s not always so specifically attached to body image.
Do you have thoughts on why you see more girls than boys?
[There are] a couple of different things. One, I have a skewed perspective because I work in a hospital environment where by the time I see the kids the eating disorder is pretty pronounced. They’ve either come in because their parents know that there’s a problem, or they’re so severely physically compromised that they are referred to us by their physician. But by the time we see them the eating disorder is somewhat cultivated and the reason that there are more girls is that most of the assessments and most of what the general population knows about eating disorders and what to look for in assessments is girl-heavy. I also think culturally we tend to look for more emotional and mental health issues with girls. Girls tend to be more open to receiving treatment and families tend to be more open to admitting that their girl has a problem with this because it’s a stereotypical girl disorder. I think boys get missed a lot in early diagnosis. A large portion of boys who struggle with eating disorders don’t have typical anorexia. They have binge/purge disorders or overuse of muscle building [products like steroids] or over-exercising. Some things that I’ve read have speculated that up to 40% of the eating disorder population would be boys if they were identified and if all the symptoms were understood and recognized.
Story by Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp
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