‘I became obsessed with it.’ Women share their eating disorder battles and why they finally got help

IDAHO FALLS — Kimmie Smith had an extreme phobia of gaining weight. In her mind, she had to be skinny – no matter the cost.

The 25-year-old was just 10 when her battle with food began. Like many families, her parents were careful about what they ate, and her mom often spoke about dieting.

Low-calorie snacks were in the cupboard, exercise was a topic of discussion and a scale in the bathroom was used daily.

“I had this thing in my head that healthy is being skinny and seeing my mom’s patterns, I was like, ‘Oh, I need to eat less calories, count my calories and stay this weight forever,’” Smith tells EastIdahoNews.com. “I became obsessed with it and when I was almost 11, I had to go to a series of doctor’s appointments because my weight was dropping so much. I got to the point where I was 50 pounds at age 10.”

Kimmie Smith says her eating disorder began when she was 10 years old. | Courtesy Kimmie Smith

The average 10-year-old weighs between 70 and 80 pounds, and Kimmie was told if she didn’t gain weight, she would have to give up her favorite hobby.

“The doctor said I cannot horseback ride if I’m 50 pounds, I’d had to be in a car seat, and my heart was going to start failing if I didn’t start eating again,” Smith recalls.

Emma Anderson relates to Smith’s story. The 19-year-old Hillcrest High School graduate says weight loss and healthy eating were always talked about in her home growing up.

She was never overweight but felt pressure to stay skinny.

Emma Anderson says her eating disorder began when she was in 3rd grade. | Courtesy Emma Anderson

“When I was in third grade, I remember running around the kitchen a bunch of times, going into my parent’s bathroom and jumping on the scale to see if I had lost weight,” Anderson says. “I did that for 20 minutes just to see how many times I could run really quickly and then jump on the scale to see if that number went down lower.”

Both women say entering their teenage years only made their eating disorders worse. They often ate very little and were depressed. They say their idea of a healthy body was someone very thin.

“I thought the less you ate, the healthier you’d be and the more you exercise, that’s good for your body because that’s what the diet industry is telling us,” Anderson says. “My menstrual cycle stopped, I wasn’t eating a lot and I was restricting. No one would have known I was struggling with this.”

Smith and Anderson graduated from high school and moved to Rexburg to attend Brigham Young University-Idaho. Their eating disorders came with them, and at one point, Smith was only eating peanut butter. Both were suffering from severe anxiety and realized they needed professional help.

Getting help

They heard about Liz Stephenson, the only certified eating disorder counseling specialist in the Rexburg area. She is extremely busy with clients and is often booked months at a time.

Stephenson says Smith’s and Anderson’s stories are not unusual for women their age but what is alarming to her is how many girls and boys are beginning to battle eating disorders at a younger age.

Liz Stephenson

Liz Stephenson is a certified eating disorder counseling specialist practicing in Rexburg. | Nate Eaton, EastIdahoNews.com

“It used to be that people with eating disorders would be probably 15 and over,” Stephenson says. “We’re now seeing kids as young as 8 that are starting to struggle with eating disorders. It’s getting younger and younger.”

About 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Most of us are aware of anorexia, where you eat very little or starve yourself, and bulimia, where you eat a lot of food and purge it. But diagnosing a specific eating disorder can be challenging.

stats

“People assume there are these two classic cases of anorexia and bulimia, and that’s all eating disorders are,” Stephenson says. “There’s another subcategory called ‘Other Specified Feeding Eating Disorders’ or we call is OSFED. Eighty percent of people with eating disorders fall in that category. They do not have enough criteria to be called anorexia or bulimia but they have enough of the same problems or a mix that they’re in the other category.”

Stephenson says eating disorders start in the brain – often at a traumatic time in someone’s life such as parents getting divorced, being bullied as a child, or having the feeling of not being loved or wanted. Food becomes something you can control, even at the risk of severe malnourishment.

“People can die from bulimia, but it’s not on the death certificate. It shows heart failure, but there are parents out there who will tell you, ‘My daughter died from making herself throw up or from using laxatives and diuretics,’” Stephenson says.

Once Smith and Anderson began meeting with Stephenson, they learned there is no shame in having a disorder or getting help, and there is no quick fix.

“You have to completely rewire your brain and completely get rid of all the propaganda the world has told you,” Smith says. “An eating disorder is like a best friend, but it’s an abusive relationship as well. It’s something that’s comfortable, and you want to go back to because it’s something familiar, but then at the end of the day, it beats you up, and you feel awful.”

Stephenson recommends parents do a few things while raising kids in a society that is obsessed with being thin:

  • See people first and bodies second.
  • Don’t focus on “good” or “bad” food. If you eat a variety of healthy foods, having a treat is OK.
  • Have open conversations about how your kids feel about their bodies.
  • Realize health is not weight. Health is behaviors.

“Someone can be 115 pounds, and they look healthy but if they’re vomiting or starving themselves, it’s not healthy,” she says. “Healthy is going out and moving your body because you enjoy moving your body, not because you’re punishing yourself for eating 1,000 calories today.”

Moving forward

After consistent hard work, Anderson says she’s now the healthiest she’s been since she was a child. She knows her battle is not over yet and encourages anyone struggling with an eating disorder to get help.

Emma Anderson

Courtesy Emma Anderson

“I would say it’s been a lifesaver and life-changing for me. I have grown so much, and I’m so much more confident in myself because of counseling,” she says.

As for Smith, she compares her disorder to a roller coaster. Some days are up, and some days are down, but at least she has the knowledge to know how to deal with it.

“It’s very important to talk to somebody,” Smith says. “You need to be very honest, and you need to tell somebody because you do not want to have this for 14 years.”

Kimmie Smith

Courtesy Kimmie Smith

Tomorrow on EastIdahoNews.com, we explore how eating disorders affect men.