Secrecy and Perfection: Eating Disorders Triggered by the Military


It’s strange to think of a soldier — a tough, fit, well-oiled machine charged with helping and defending — as being able to perform those duties while voluntarily vomiting five times a day. But that describes Marine Theresa Larson.

In a piece for RH Reality Check, Annamarya Scaccia reports that Larson spent about a year serving in Iraq while suffering from bulimia. It was, obviously, a high-stress situation: She was away from her family, in a combat zone, on a battlefield, leading a platoon of 50. And while she’d experienced disordered eating in college, the military did something to her.

“I would find ways to be able to [vomit] because it was like a release for me,” said Larson, one of seven female veterans chronicling their stories for the book, Phoenix: Women Warriors on Resilience, Recovery, and Triumph, which will be published this year. “Bulimia was like getting it out of my system.”

Scaccia spoke with Dr. John Dolores, executive director of Center for Hope of the Sierras, a residential eating disorder treatment center in Reno, Nevada. He called the military a “perfect storm” for triggering an eating disorder. Discipline. The strive for excellence. Secrecy. The idea that it’s important to serve others before you serve yourself. And, let’s face it, there’s a certain amount of brainwashing that goes into making a soldier.

“That perfectionism, that rigidity, is a really big piece to it,” Dolores told RH Reality Check.

In addition, there were physical demands:

If she could, Larson would strive to beat the tougher male PFT standards. She wanted to run as fast as the guys, to get as many pulls up as the men, because that’s what she was taught a leader “was supposed to do”—especially if you’re a female Marine. It didn’t matter how fatigued and exhausted she became from long hours of working, studying, and training every day, she “couldn’t show weakness” or if she gained weight.
“I was scared of gaining weight. I was scared to not look thin,” Larson, now a physical therapist with her own practice in San Diego, told RH Reality Check. “I was scared to not be the best … I had to do everything perfectly … to set an example for being one of the strongest female Marines.”

There’s isn’t a ton of data on eating disorders in the military, and what numbers there are don’t exactly add up. Scaccia cites a 1997 study which found found that 6.8 percent of active duty Navy men battled bulimia and 2.5 percent struggled with anorexia, while 40.8 percent had ED-NOS. But a 2008 report from the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine showed that only 1.76 percent of female service members were diagnosed with an eating disorder between 1998 and 2006. Meanwhile, a 2001 study published in Military Medicine claimed that female soldiers were likely to suffer from bulimia at nearly six times the rate of the general population. The folks who’ve written the studies are fully aware that they’re dealing with under-reporting and soldiers concealing their issues. Scaccia goes into how the approach has changed since Larson was in the Marines in 2004, so be sure and read the entire worth-your-while piece. As for Larson, she’s much better, telling Scaccia: “My love of training and food has improved so much.”

Image via Getty.

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