Dear Mrs. Bluth,
I would like to shed light on a problem that I, a school and camp nurse for over ten years, have seen grow in alarming numbers over the years. When I first started in my profession, I came across just a handful of these cases and dealt with them to the best of my ability. However, for the most part, I was not very successful in pointing out to parents how severe the problem was and that if not addressed in a timely fashion, it would only get worse. Many parents (in reality, I dealt mostly with the mothers), did not take me seriously, especially the cases I came across in summer sleep-away camps. When summer ended, so did my contact and affiliation with these seriously afflicted girls and I had no follow-up with them.
The problem I am referring to is anorexia/bulimia which many of the girls I have come in contact with have fallen victim to.
At the different schools and camps I have worked in, I saw ever-growing numbers of gaunt and exceptionally thin girls, some as young as ten or eleven years of age. They had collar bones, ribs and hip bones protruding through their clothes and swim wear. Some of them came to me on their own and others were brought to my attention by concerned counselors and bunkmates due to vomiting caused by a “stomach virus.”
When would confront the girls, the excuses were always the same: “I eat a lot at meals, just ask anyone in my bunk” or “my mother and my sisters are thin too, it runs in the family” and “I eat healthy, I don’t want to be fat!”
Mrs. Bluth, some of these girls were so far beyond thin as to be boarder-line emaciated. In some cases, when I brought this to the attention of the school administrations and in one instance the camp director, I was basically told not to rock the boat or cause alarm, and, out of fear of losing my job, I went against my better judgement for many years and kept quiet, dealing just with the girls, in the hope that they would listen. But of course, food abuse, whether in the form of gorging and purging or compulsive overeating, is a very real addiction and can be lethal.
What finally gave me the impetus to come forward is the sheer volume of “blind-eye” and denial across the board to the threat these conditions pose including the disruption and/or cessation of a woman’s menstrual cycle, that could effect a person’s ability to conceive and bear healthy children. At worst, it can lead to death.
Six months ago, an eleven-year-old girl was brought to my office at school by her teacher. Seeing that she had not returned to her seat after having been in the bathroom for a lengthy period, the teacher went to check on her and found her semi-conscious in a pool of vomit in one of the stalls. The little girl was white as a sheet. However, she appeared more terrified at the fact that I was going to call her mother than at the circumstance that brought her to me. After speaking with her for a while, I learned that many of her friends were doing the gorge and purge so that they would not raise suspicion, yet remain stick thin. I made a valiant effort to explain that what she was doing was slowly going to kill her, but I could see that she was shutting me out. After she returned to class, I decided to call her mother and tell her that her child needed far more intensive help and intervention than I was able to give her. Long story short, the mother complained that I was over-dramatizing the situation and I was fired.
I am hoping that you will share this letter with your readers so that mothers who mistakenly take pride in their model-thin daughters and even sons, take a closer look and check for signs that may point to an eating disorder or addiction which warrants therapeutic intervention. A child’s life may depend on it.
I am sorry to hear that your concern and professional opinion was rewarded with the termination of your job. Sadly, often good intentions and noble efforts go unrewarded. In this case, everyone involved lost. The school failed this child, the parents failed this child and our society, which condones, covets and encourages a “thin is beautiful” mentality in our daughters failed and continues to fail our children.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard mothers say, “I have to watch what she eats or she’ll have trouble with shidduchim” and the child in question is barely ten years old or even younger. That, in and of itself, is a poor excuse to withhold food or instill fear in such a young child. On top of encouraging poor eating habits and low self-image, what is implanted in this young mind is the fear that she will not be accepted by anyone if she is not thin. She develops a low self-esteem and, driven by this carefully planted terror that she will never score a husband if, heaven forbid, there’s an ounce of fat on her, she resorts to extreme measures that ultimately become life threatening and beyond her ability to control.
Models wear tiny little designer dresses on their wire-thin bodies, and little girls watch, learn and want to emulate. Mothers talk about diets, weight loss and “going to the gym to work out” so they can be thin, and little girls watch, listen and copy. Beauty is measured in pounds and ounces and little girls learn to count the mouthfuls of food, replacing proteins with lettuce leaves and three meals a day with one which ultimately ends up in the toilet bowl, just so they will be thin and beautiful. And some little girls who become anorexic/bulimic will, chas v’shalom, never grow up. Sadly, as in many other areas, our value system has become warped and dangerous. In our pursuit of the “great shidduch” we have lost sight of what the value system should be for our children. And the price we end up paying may be unimaginable.
I admire your devotion to your craft and your determination to pursue the message of warning us to protect our children, even at the expense of your job. I am proud to join you in the effort to enlighten everyone dealing with child welfare to be observant and alert in dealing with any sudden or obvious changes in behavior both physical and/or emotional and to seek immediate help. Caught early enough, almost anything can be addressed successfully, so that quality of life along with a healthy mind-set can be attained.