After years of silence, the military rape epidemic has finally been dragged out into the open, but there’s another silent epidemic targeting servicewomen that hasn’t gotten nearly as much press: eating disorders. Under pressure to remain fit and meet exacting standards while also competing with conventional beauty standards, servicewomen are struggling with anorexia, bulimia, excessive exercise, and other issues — and the military is not keeping pace with their medical needs.
As Navy veteran Andrea Chandler put it in an interview with Care2, “There was pretty much zero awareness around eating disorders when I was in. And in fact because of the culture of fitness thing, some eating disorders are actively enabled. Someone perceived as watching their diet and working out will get high praise right up until they’re too weak to work out. People who are perceived as overweight or borderline overweight will particularly be encouraged in disordered eating.”
How widespread is the problem? Annamarya Scaccia articulates the issue for Reproductive Health Reality Check:
“A 2001 study published in Military Medicine found that, across four of the five military branches, female soldiers were likely to suffer from bulimia at nearly six times the rate of the general population — or 8.1 percent, compared to 1.5 percent of women and 0.5 percent of men — with higher numbers among female Marines (15.9 percent). The same study showed 1.1 percent of female soldiers suffered from anorexia and 62.8 percent suffered from eating disorders not otherwise specified (ED-NOS) — a rate slightly higher than that of civilian women.”
“It’s pervasive and obnoxious,” Chandler said, referring to the culture of eating disorders in the military.
Part of the problem is military culture itself, which places a high value on fitness, an extremely regimented lifestyle and precise rules about meal times and related issues. This can exacerbate an existing eating disorder or contribute to the development of one, especially under the high stress of deployment. With servicewomen being rewarded for appearing fit, higher-ups may not necessarily be willing and ready to identify the signs of disordered eating and other symptoms of eating disorders, while servicewomen are pressured not to seek treatment.
If they do seek care, they risk discharge, as well as penalties from a culture that encourages people to stay silent. The same culture of silence has played a significant role in the military rape epidemic and it’s a key element in the struggle over eating disorders as well. Since they aren’t discussed and servicemembers aren’t provided with information about how to access support, they become objects of shame that make it difficult to come forward.
Servicewomen aren’t the only ones experiencing problems with disordered eating — servicemen are having similar issues, with much higher rates of disordered eating and other problems than the general population. Like the women who serve beside them, they’re pressured by high appearance and fitness standards, combat, and an internal culture. The result is what some psychologists are calling a “perfect storm” for servicemembers at risk of eating disorders. The same drive to excel and succeed in a challenging environment can be funneled into eating disorders, which can become a way of managing stress, meeting weight standards, and gaining approval from colleagues and friends.
To address the problem, the military needs comprehensive eating disorder awareness and education for servicemembers, along with an intervention and treatment plan to help men and women get the care they need when they need it without shame or risk of discharge. Like other warriors wounded in the line of duty, they need treatment, therapy and the option to return to duty when they’re fit again.
Navy Commander (Doctor) Nicole McIntyre is one of the many doctors in uniform serving the armed forces. Photo credit: MilitaryHealth.