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Couple who lost daughter to bulimia reach out to UConn students

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - March 3, 2008

Andrea Smeltzer was an attractive college student with a talent for opera and foreign languages.

As a freshman, she began dieting. Less than two years later, she died from an electrolyte imbalance resulting from bulimia, a disorder involving binge eating and purging.

Since her death in 1999, her parents, Doris and Tom Smeltzer, have resolved to make her voice heard through the presentations they make around the country on the topic of eating disorders.

On Feb. 26, they spoke to a full house in UConn’s Student Union Theatre.

Eating disorders are widespread among students nationwide. In 2006, a national poll taken on college campuses found that nearly 20 percent of the respondents believed that at some point they had suffered from an eating disorder.

The Smeltzers said eating disorders are not primarily about food. They begin as a coping mechanism for other problems, but can soon get out of hand.

“Eating disorders may begin as a focus on diet or fitness, but ultimately they are about far more than food,” said Andrea’s mom.

She said her daughter’s eating disorder was a way of coping with her feelings of fear.

In a journal from which her dad read excerpts, Andrea wrote, “I have to remember to win this war against my body.”

“Disordered eating is about something in your life that’s out of control,” said Tom Smeltzer.

“Food is one thing we can do something about, take control, and feel this little part of our life is working. But ultimately the eating disorder takes control.”

Doris Smeltzer described an eating disorder as an addiction, and dieting as the “gateway drug.”

“Not every diet leads to an eating disorder, but nearly every eating disorder begins with some form of weight loss diet,” she said.

She maintained that dieting is not normal. It is based on deprivation, sacrifice, and guilt. Food is a basic need, she noted, as are water and sleep.

When these needs are not satisfied, people crave what they are missing. And when the need is finally met, more than a normal amount is required.

Yet dieting has become normalized in American culture, she said.

“Dieting is a $50 billion-a-year industry.”

She said others may unwittingly contribute to disordered eating behavior by complimenting a person for losing weight.

The Smeltzers said the idealized portrayal of women’s – and men’s – bodies in the media has a devastating effect.

They showed a magazine cover photo of a movie star’s face with someone else’s legs and body, making her appear taller and more slender than she is.

“Airbrushing is common,” they added.

The look that Andrea desired didn’t exist in reality, they noted.

Doris Smeltzer said her daughter was well aware of the risks of eating disorders, but was in denial that the risks applied to her.

When, at the end of her first year in college, Andrea made herself vomit for the first time after eating, said her mom, “she stepped over the line into what would become a psychological and emotional addiction.”

Andrea’s mom said it’s important for friends and family to express concern for the person in a non-judgmental manner: “Every single voice helps chip away at denial.”

She said friends and family should not wait until the person has a full-blown eating disorder before seeking professional help.

“You wouldn’t want a leukemia patient to wait till they got sicker before beginning treatment,” she said, “yet we often don’t respond to an eating disorder until it fits the model.”

Andrea sought professional help during the summer after her freshman year, and seemed much better when she returned to college. But after a boyfriend broke up with her, she resumed the bulimic behavior.

“We thought Andrea could heal over one summer and then all would be well,” said her mother. “We did not understand that recovery is often full of movement forward and back.”

She said she and her husband misinterpreted the warning signs and did not recognize how sick their daughter was.

They thought her exercising was a healthy behavior, not recognizing that it had become obsessive.

“Andrea did not look starved,” said her mom.

“She was consistently cold, but we didn’t realize she was suffering hypothermia. On the day she died, she was the picture of health.”

Doris Smeltzer said friends and family can help a loved one by showing acceptance of their own bodies.

They can also focus conversation on topics such as movies or books instead of on personal appearance, and replace the common greetings “You look fantastic” or “Have you lost weight?” with “It’s good to see you.”

The Smeltzers also said prejudice against overweight people must be recognized as a form of discrimination, and they urged the audience to complain to advertisers about images that are offensive.

Professional help for students with eating disorders is available through Student Health Services, including counseling and mental health services, nutrition services, and peer support; the Women’s Center; and the Humphrey Center.

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