Understand issues related to mental health and body image in young women

Several Idaho experts on mental health and body image in young women discussed eating disorders and what resources are available in a panel with Idaho News 6 and Optum Idaho.

Allie Ostrander is an elite runner and mental health advocate who chronicled her journey with an eating disorder and mental health on her YouTube page. Sr. Behavioral Medical Director Julie Wood, MD with Optum and Girls On The Run Treasure Valley Executive Director Toni Ramey discussed what eating disorders look like and available resources.

Ostrander said that young women, including young athletes, are often pressured to be seen a certain way by the media or to achieve a certain level in sport.

Just as a woman, there’s a lot of societal pressure to look a certain way,” Ostrander said. “As a runner, especially as a long-distance runner, there’s a notion in sport that thinner is faster, that you have to be very lean to be competitive. There’s all the talk about racing weight and trying to just always become a smaller version of yourself, and as a distance runner it’s almost ingrained to think that you have to do this in order to look your best.

Ramey said the Girls On The Run program can even serve as a preventative treatment for eating disorders.

We truly view our program as a preventive measure because when girls feel confident and know that the most important thing about their body isn’t what it looks like or how fast it goes, but what it can do for them, then they tend to be healthier in the long run and avoiding behaviors that may be risky later in life,” Ramey said.

Girls on the run Treasure Valley is a program that uses evidence to provide “dynamic lessons that teach valuable life skills, including the important connection between physical and emotional health.”

But defining what an eating disorder is can be essential to understanding how it can impact a person’s life.

“Many people think that their lifestyle is a complex and potentially life-threatening mental illness, but they aren’t,” Wood said. “Eating disorders can manifest themselves in many different ways. But for anorexia nervosa, what we’re looking for is people who really have a lot of food culture, where they try to restrict foods, they’ll often limit their intake to dangerously low levels, where they just can’t sustain bodily function.”

According to Wood, warning signs can include excessive dieting and weight loss, as well as eating rituals where the person pushes food around on the plate without actually eating.

As for binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa,” Wood said. “Both disorders involve eating large amounts of food in a very short period of time. People with bulimia nervosa eat large amounts of food in a short period of time. But they also have the same kind of fear of gaining weight and really just being kind of disgusted with themselves.”

Wood said that while many people probably think that eating disorders primarily affect young women, it can affect anyone from a very young age to older adults.

While it’s not always clear to recognize signs of an eating disorder, neither is it possible to prevent an eating disorder — but knowing the risks and symptoms helps.

Growing up, I really had no idea what an eating disorder was, or you know what some of the implications of that were,” Ostrander told Danger to My Overall Health and Wellbeing. If we can instill this awareness in people at an earlier age, parents can instill this awareness with coaches, teachers, other role models and personalities, then hopefully we can help to start a more preventive approach rather than always treating the problem, if it has already developed.”

Ramey said part of the Girls on the Run mission is to reverse some of what the mainstream media promotes about body image and teach young women about healthy habits and attitudes.

Our program is really trying to emphasize with girls ages 8, 9 and 10 that you don’t always have to conform to what the media tells you about your looks,” she said. “Actually what’s important about your body is your overall health and that includes physical health, mental health, emotional health and supportive relationships around you can really give girls a lot of confidence and eating disorders in young girls especially sometimes manifest as a lack of control .

Available Resources

There are a number of resources for people with eating disorders, or for anyone who knows someone with an eating disorder. If you or someone you know is on Idaho Medicaid and is struggling with an eating disorder, mental health or substance use disorder, call the Optum Idaho Member Questions or Crisis Hotline at 1-855-202-097.

For more information on eating disorders, see National Institute for Mental Healththe American Psychological Associationand at Optum Idaho.

Check out the full panel here:

Optum Body Image Panel

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