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Social media can contribute to eating disorders

February 11, 2019

GREENWICH — A culture obsessed with physical appearance has contributed to a rise in the prevalence of eating disorders, and social media is inflaming the problem for young people, local experts said Monday.

“There is so much pressure to look certain way,” said Lauren Alcan, a clinical social worker in Greenwich who worked at an eating disorder recovery center. “On social media, there’s so much competition.”

In places like Greenwich, the pressure on physical appearance is magnified, Alcan said.

“I grew up in this area,” the therapist said. “From my personal experience and from working in this area, I’ve seen that there is so much pressure. And it’s not just put on ourselves, but friends and family may want us to look a certain way. We’re afraid we won’t fit in.”

Attention to the issue intensified recently as followers of local Youtube star Eugenia Cooney posted comments of concern about her thin appearance. Worry for the 24-year-old Cooney was so great that some asked the Greenwich Police Department do welfare checks at her home. Others participated in rumors that Cooney had died because she had been offline for a while. Police responded with a tweet Saturday that she was OK.

“I appreciate the concern,” Cooney tweeted Sunday. “I’m taking a break from social media and voluntarily working on this with my doctor privately. Please respect that.”

Aside from negative comments and online bullying, which can also contribute to issues like body dysmorphia, Alcan said the unrealistic facade social media puts on people’s lives can be harmful.

“It’s so unrealistic and so obviously incredibly unhealthy,” she said. “It shows a bigger societal problem in the fact that there is so much emphasis on someone’s looks and thinking that is the focal point of person’s value.”

An eating disorder is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental illnesses in which people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. Becoming preoccupied with food and body weight is usually a symptom of an eating disorder.

Body dysmorphia is a disorder in which a person obsesses over one or more perceived flaw in appearance that others either don’t see or consider minor. A person with dysmorphia may feel so ashamed of their appearance that they have anxiety about being seen in public.

There are at least 30 million people suffering from an eating disorder in the U.S., according to National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. They affect all races and ethnic groups.

Last year, plastic surgeons and doctors began warning the public of “Snapchat dysmorphia.” They said the filters used on the photo and social media app Snapchat have given young people such an unrealistic standard of beauty that they seek cosmetic surgery to look more like the versions they see of themselves in flattering filters.

Talking about a person’s weight publicly online — even if the comments come from a place of concern — is never a good idea, said Alcan.

Examples of strangers commenting on Cooney’s weight abound on Youtube and Twitter. Some are pleas for the young woman to get help. Others are long videos of men speculating about her circumstances. Many are mean-spirited.

The best person to confront concerns is someone with a personal relationship and the conversation should be face to face, the therapist said.

“It’s such a sensitive subject and it’s a vulnerable place to be in,” Alcan said. “The way you approach that conversation depends on the relationship. We’re all very nervous to confront people we care about with things even outside appearances.”

Melissa McClain Coffin, a psychologist from Cos Cob, said families can be traumatized when a loved one develops an eating disorder.

“It’s incredibly terrifying for families and loved ones of people who are struggling. Oftentimes, they’re paralyzed by their fear, about what to do, so they can wait too long to take action,” she said.

A good practice is to take a team approach with a family member who has developed a pathology around food and body image.

“If they’re worried about their loved one, they should make sure they’re getting a multidisciplinary team - a medical professional, a psychologist or a therapist, a dietician - to do a thorough assessment as a team,” said McClain Coffin.

Alcan said if there is genuine concern, it should be confronted in a sensitive way without judgment, shaming or blaming.

“You don’t need to tell them they need to get treatment, but just let them know there is a person you can talk to if there’s anything going on ,” said Alcan.

Peers who may be concerned about another young person should reach out to their parents, she said, because they may be aware of something the parents are not.

Center for Discovery, an eating disorder treatment facility in Greenwich, offers free support groups open to the public every Thursday from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at its facility at 7 Riversville Rd, Suite 2A. People suffering from a disorder as well friends and family can attend.

Anyone who needs immediate assistance regarding an eating disorder should call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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