Renfrew fights against unrealistic, unhealthy body images

Every day we are bombarded with images of the ideal body, the ideal man or woman. Through TV commercials, magazine and internet ads and now increasingly via social media, an endless stream of cultural and social messages is transmitted.

While some messages can be categorized as healthy, aspirational or even productive, many others veer on the edge of being unrealistic and potentially insidious. What does it mean that Barbies, the predominant plaything of young girls for decades, promote an impossible set of proportions and ideal body measurements? While the debate is staunchly divided on the lasting effects of this kind of body and image education, one thing is clear: Positive body image and self-esteem are both crucial to lasting health.

This is the message that the Renfrew Center Foundation, a pre-eminent eating disorder treatment center, is promoting this week during the 27th annual National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, from Feb. 23 through March 1. As a part of the week, Renfrew is launching its third annual Barefaced & Beautiful, Without & Within campaign. This awareness project is held to combat unrealistic cultural messages that fuel negative self-esteem and body image issues, which Renfrew sees as instrumental factors in setting the stage for eating disorders.

As a central part of the campaign, Renfrew has asked women to participate in a new kind of social media campaign. One that’s diametrically opposed to the culture of airbrushing and perfecting filters. On Monday, Feb. 24, women across the nation tweeted, Facebooked and Instagrammed untouched selfies of themselves, sans makeup. Renfrew hoped that this initiative would encourage an ongoing dialogue about inner beauty and authentic self.

“A few years ago, the Renfrew Center developed this campaign not as an anti campaign of anti-makeup or cosmetics, but to address the dilemma that many young people face in terms of representing their authentic self, which is kind of the hallmark of an eating disorder,” said Jamie Shumake LMHC, a clinical supervisor at the Old Greenwich chapter of the Renfrew Center.

One of the hallmarks of an eating disorder is that what is on the outside is incongruent with what’s on the inside. According to Mr. Shumake, the fundamental tenet of the Barefaced & Beautiful campaign is that the authentic self could benefit in spades from having a forum to be exposed to.

The campaign also hoped to highlight an intriguing discrepancy; that while we are quick to point out and criticize magazines featuring airbrushed models, we engage in a similar kind of behavior on social media. A recent survey conducted by Renfrew, with the help of Harris Interactive, unearthed some startling data. From a sample size of 2,047 adults aged 18 and above, with 1,108 women and 939 men, 85% of these individuals reported that they post selfies, and more than half of respondents admitted to touching up these images first. From removing blemishes, to adding color to a complexion, to making themselves look thinner, respondents admitted to a variety of tactics to enhance images.

Mr. Shumake believes that spreading the true beauty message is essential to promoting healthy body image, an authentic self, and ultimately, combating eating disorders and other self-destructive behaviors.

“What we’re trying to do is to raise that awareness about the dilemma that many women face in how they think they’re perceived by peers, opposite sex, partners … and how that might drive or set the stage for eating disorders thought processes,” said Mr. Shumake.

While it may be easy to blame social pressures as a main causal agent in the onset of eating disorders, Mr. Shumake says there are a variety of factors. There’s no one cause, biological, social, emotional, physical, that is responsible for an eating disorder. Younger girls are especially influenced by their peers and what they see around them, and may struggle with balancing preserving their identity while simultaneously feeling a need to conform.

“Sure, social pressures, media presentation and everything are reinforcing to eating disorders, but as a primal causal agent, I don’t think that’s really it. … The underlying significant causes to an eating disorder are much more profound than a mannequin or an advertising campaign,” Mr. Shumake said. “They don’t help and it would be nice if they would take a step back and look at what they might be reinforcing.”

Mr. Shumake admits that the rise of social media cannot be discounted, especially as recent data suggests a troubling trend for eating disorders to begin even earlier. Historically, the onset for eating disorders is mid-adolescence, on average, at 15 years old, ranging to the early 20s. It is undeniable that younger people are very much engaged in social media as a peer group.

There are virtually no set practices to monitor or filter what images and messages are posted on the Internet and social media platforms. While it would be helpful for people to be mindful of content, this suggestion is at best idealistic. Eating disorder websites promoting anorexic and bulimic lifestyles continue to have a significant and growing online presence. This form of “advocacy” is characterized by “thinspiration” images and tips on how to successfully manage an eating disorder. The potential effect of these kinds of sites is disconcerting, to say the least.

“Are they influenced by what they see, what they read, and what they hear from peers and what’s out there? Absolutely. We don’t have any control of what goes up on the Web and who says what about anything,” said Mr. Shumake.

National efforts to promote awareness and education about eating disorders are viewed as lacking by industry professionals. Mr. Shumake attributes this to what he calls the general stigma toward mental health issues and treatment today. He is adamant in saying that the government could be making stronger efforts to destigmatize mental illness treatment, so that those afflicted feel both supported and comfortable seeking help.

“We can barely talk about mental health issues and treatment in any kind of voice, without it being treated like a cartoon,” said Mr. Shumake.

Further, he said, as a part of the full mental illness framework, spanning depression to schizophenia to eating disorders, eating disorders receive little attention. As it stands, the mortality rate for eating disorders is higher than that of any psychiatric disorder. In addition, roughly 50% of eating disorders have a comorbid treatment issue, such as anxiety, substance abuse or severe depression, making eating disorders all the more harmful for those at risk.

“In my own thinking, it should be the top priority. … It’s the most dangerous mental health illness that any person can have. … You’re usually treating more than just the eating disorder, you’re also treating some pretty severe illnesses,” said Mr. Shumake.

There is no uniform person with an eating disorder, there is no one reason for its cause, and there is no one type of treatment. Treatment centers like Renfrew emphasize the potential severity of the disease and the importance of early and aggressive intervention. While some professionals view recovery as a lifelong condition, others, such as Mr. Shumake, see it in terms of recovery followed by vigilance.

“There’s no right or wrong answer there, it’s kind of up to the individual. I’d like to encourage our patients to think more in terms of vigilance and if you see signs of old behaviors, you know what is effective, you know what to do,” said Mr. Shumake.

Renfrew offers a variety of treatment options. Parents who have suspicions that their child may have an eating disorder may call Renfrew at 1-800-Renfrew and talk to an experienced person who will give them suggestions about how to open the dialogue, and listen to what their concerns are. Renfrew offers three preliminary sessions to begin the discussion and evaluate the severity of the case. Mr. Shumake admitted that this phase of treatment can be the most challenging, saying that “it’s a very scary proposition to enter treatment — that’s probably the hardest step.”

The Old Greenwich Renfrew chapter offers three levels of treatment. The first is a partial hospitalization, day treatment program that meets five days a week for roughly five hours each day. It includes breakfast and lunch, which are supervised and used as part of the therapeutic process. The intensive outpatient program meets three nights a week and includes a dinner meal. Both programs include therapeutic groups on such topics as body image, nutrition and coping skills. They also utilize family therapy and multi-family group sessions that provide guidance, support and education for all those involved.

The third level of treatment is outpatient, which consists of weekly individual therapy with a licensed clinician. Other options Renfrew offers include nutritional counseling, free educational webinars, and an emotional eating group open to the community at large.

Mr. Shumake stressed the importance of individual family therapy in treatment of an eating disorder, especially with adolescent or minor patients. Parents can be instrumental by modeling healthy eating habits and behaviors.

“It’s often more of question of what you don’t need to do: Don’t focus on the caloric intake, don’t focus on the idealized body shapes, and model effective eating behaviors. Most people have disordered eating of one kind of another — we all could do a better job with how we behave around food,” said Mr. Shumake.

While not all people have the symptoms of an eating disorder, many do have some eating-related quirks. Someone who thinks they may be experiencing the beginnings of something more severe should seek assistance. According to Mr. Shumake, the hardest but most critical step toward recovery is communication.

“Discuss it with a primary care physician, any allied professional who might have some experience. It can be any trusted person, a parent, a guidance counselor, a teacher. … Talk to somebody,” Mr. Shumake said.


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