About Health: Need to Be Thin Causes Eating Disorders in Middle-Aged Women

If you think eating disorders are only for teenage girls, think again. Older women face the same issues, and the stress of an eating disorder on both the sufferer and the spouse can lead to divorce. It’s called the “Desperate Housewives Syndrome,” because ever since the show debuted on television several years ago, middle-aged women have been inspired to look thinner than ever.

“They’re also thin and it puts pressure on women in their thirties, forties and fifties to think that it is possible to have this glamorous lifestyle and a great sex life if you’re skinny,” said Dr. Chris Freeman in an article in New Age. “I believe it’s influencing women to have eating disorders. Lots of women diet and lose weight quickly, but they aren’t obsessive and perfectionist enough to sustain it.”

According to Dr. Donald McAlpine, director of Mayo Clinic’s eating disorders services, stress is a major cause of the problem.

“If the person in the relationship who has an eating disorder will not get professional help or is not responding to treatment, the partner of the person with the eating disorder will generally feel powerless to help their loved one,” says Julie Sponsler, a therapist in Philadelphia, Pa., who specializes in marriage and family therapy and eating disorders. “This is a difficult place to be and can result in a strained relationship between the partners. Some partners may take the eating disorder behaviors personally wondering what they did to cause the behavior or thinking that if the partner who has the eating disorder loved them more, they could just stop.”

According to WebMD.com, the middle-aged victims “are often living productive lives and want to fight midlife weight gain. Or there may be an emotional crisis that triggers it. Depression springs from a divorce, a death, a child who has left home. Her self-esteem may be suffering. She may feel lonely.”

Therapist Julie Sponsler says that spouses of women with eating disorders should recognize it as a valid illness, not solely a reaction to food or appearance.

“Remember that all forms of eating disorders are emotionally based and the eating disorder is never really about the food but a way for the person to deal with emotional and stress related issues,” she said. She recommended that spouses avoid negative discussions about food, instead caring about the individual inside. “Never comment on the person’s weight. Never comment on what the person is eating. Gently express concern and learn to listen attentively,” she said.

“For the person who has an eating disorder, it is very important to get professional help as soon as possible from a qualified therapist who specializes in eating disorders or, depending on the severity of the eating disorder, the person may need to be hospitalized or may need to attend a residential program or an intensive outpatient program,” she said.

“It is very difficult to heal from an eating disorder without treatment,” she said.

According to WebMD.com, some eating problems occur during pregnancy or after having a child.

“We see women become anorexic while trying to lose pregnancy weight. It can even start during the pregnancy, this struggle with weight issues. The women become obsessed with body image, they’ve been on a series of diets and weight-loss programs. But at some point, the wish to lose weight becomes overwhelming, an obsession.”

Another source, according to WebMD.com, is the media and entertainment. “Much is due to our ‘culture of extremes.’ There is no middle ground. They want to be perfect. They don’t want to be average,” the website states.

Though less common, eating disorders can also occur among men. Mirror-Mirror.org is an award-winning website dedicated to helping men and women with eating disorders, says one big myth is that men with eating disorders must always be gay men. “Someone’s sexual preference has nothing to do with them developing an eating disorder,” the website says. “The reasons men develop eating disorders are really no different than why a woman, child, or anyone else would. They may have been victims of abuse, come from dysfunctional families, were subjected to teasing from their peers, etc. They also experience the same feelings as anyone else. They have low self-esteem, are perfectionists, overachievers, do not know how to express emotions, avoid conflict, put others needs ahead of their own, feel unworthy and hate most everything about themselves.”

Another myth, the website states, is that you cannot always tell that someone has an eating disorder by appearance. “Not all anorexics look like the extreme cases shown on talk shows. They look thin, but they do not have what society considers to be the ‘anorexic’ look. Just because someone does not look emaciated, does not mean they are not anorexic, or that their health is not in danger.”

Julie Sponsler thinks that strength can come from the personal relationship a person has with a spouse. “Partners of people with an eating disorder need to find a healthy support system where they can express their feelings about what they are going through in a safe supportive way in order to take care of themselves and to avoid taking out their feelings on the person suffering from an eating disorder,” she said.

If you or anyone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.


A big cause of divorce can be the stress from one spouse’s eating disorder, and it’s not just women who are affected. It can happen to men too. Julie Sponsler, an eating disorders specialist and marriage therapist in Philadelphia, Pa., said. “The signs vary from person to person depending on a number of factors.” Here, she gives ways to recognize when something is wrong.

1. Mental and emotional symptoms. “Preoccupation with body appearance or weight. Moodiness, irritability, confusion or shakiness. Reduced concentration, memory and thinking ability. Depression or suicidal thoughts. Anxiety, especially around meal times.”

2. Behavioral symptoms. “Dieting or making frequent excuses not to eat. Overeating or hoarding food. Obsessive rituals, such as drinking only out of a certain cup, or eating certain foods. Wearing baggy clothes, or a change in clothing style. Trips to the bathroom after meals.”

3. Social symptoms. “Social withdrawal or isolation. Avoidance of social situations involving food, and decreased interest in hobbies.”

4. Physical symptoms. “Warning signs of anorexia include dramatic recent weight loss unrelated to an illness. In women, it’s missing three consecutive menstrual periods. Having no energy, or complaints about feeling cold all the time. Dry, lifeless hair, brittle nails, poor skin tone.”


An untreated eating disorder can greatly harm your marriage. American Family Physician explains four ways to tell if something is wrong.

1. “If you have an eating disorder, you are very concerned about the way your body looks, and you use food to control your emotions. You want very much to be thin and are afraid of becoming fat.”

2. “Eating disorders result from a strong sense of emotional need or pain. If you have an eating disorder, you might think that you will be happy if you reach a certain weight. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.”

3. “If you have anorexia nervosa, you are underweight but think you are overweight. You might try to lose weight by not eating much, eating only certain kinds of food, or exercising too much.”

4. “If you have bulimia nervosa, you might be normal weight or overweight but are not happy with your weight. If you have bulimia, you will eat a lot of food, then try to get rid of it by making yourself vomit or by taking water pills or laxatives. This is called binging and purging.”

Krystle Russin is a freelance journalist in Austin, Texas. She graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in government(pre-law), and minors in journalism and history.