Understanding issues surrounding mental health and body image in young women

Posted at 5:28 PM, Jul 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-18 20:02:43-04

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 has 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 can look like and resources available.

Ostrander said pressure is often put on young women, including young athletes, to look a certain way by the media or in order to achieve a certain level within sports.

"Just being a woman, there's a lot of societal pressure to look a certain way," Ostrander said. "As a runner, a distance runner especially, there's this idea in sport that thinner is faster that you need to be very lean to be competitive. There's all this talk around race weight and trying to just always become a smaller version of yourself and it's almost ingrained as a distance runner to think that you need to do that in order to be your best.

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

"We really look at our program as a preventative because if girls feel confident in who they are and know that the important thing about their bodies is not how it looks or how fast it goes, but what it can do for them, then they tend to be healthier in the long run and avoid behaviors that can be risky later in life," Ramey said.

Girls on the Run Treasure Valley is a program that is based on evidence to provide "dynamic lessons (that) instill 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 persons life.

"A lot of people think their lifestyle choice, but they're not, they're really a complex and potentially life threatening, mental illness," Wood said. "Eating disorders, they can manifest in different ways. But for anorexia nervosa, we look for individuals that really have a lot of diet culture where they're looking to restrict food, they often will restrict their levels of intake to a dangerously low level, where they just can't maintain body function."

Wood said warning signs can include excessive dieting and excessive weight-loss and can include food rituals where the person pushes food around the plate without actually eating.

"As far as binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa," Wood said. "Both of these disorders involve eating large quantities of food in very short short amount of time. People with bulimia nervosa will eat a large amount of food in a short amount of time. But they also have those same kind of fears of gaining weight and and being really just kind of disgusted with themselves."

Wood said while many people likely think of young women being primarily impacted by eating disorders, it can affect anybody from a very young age to older adults.

While spotting signs of an eating disorder is not always clear, neither is preventing an eating disorder — but knowing the risks and symptoms helps.

"When I was growing up I really had no idea what an eating disorder was or you know what some of the consequences of that were," Ostrander said. "Unfortunately I didn't realize until I was pretty deep into my eating disorder, what a danger it was to my overall health and well being. If we can give people that awareness at an earlier age, give parents that awareness coaches, teachers, other role models and figures, then hopefully we can help kind of start more of a preventative approach instead of always just treating the issue once it's already developed."

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

"Our program really tries to emphasize with girls at 8, 9 and 10 that you don't always have to adhere to what the media is telling you in terms of how you should look," she said. "In fact, what's important about your body is your overall health and that includes physical health, mental health, emotional health, and having supportive relationships around you can really give girls a lot of self confidence and eating disorders in young girls especially sometimes manifest out of a lack of control.

Available resources

A number of resources are available for those with eating disorders or for anyone who knows someone with an eating disorder. If you or someone you know has 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.

More information on eating disorders is available through the National Institute of Mental Health, the American Psychological Association, and at Optum Idaho.

Watch the full panel here:

Optum Body Image Panel