Beyond The Stereotype

By Kiera Blessing The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Prevailing stereotypes imply that eating disorders, particularly anorexia, affect only affluent, straight, white women in their teens. But statistics show that at least 30 million Americans -- including men and women of all ages and ethnic groups -- suffer from an eating disorder, according to National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.


It was a Sunday night in San Francisco, and Krista Sturgeon was staring at a spoonful of peanut butter.

She knew she needed to eat it, but a force that lived in her mind, yet existed beyond her control, would not allow the smooth, brown spread to breach her lips. She wouldn't, couldn't, eat.

Sturgeon was suffering from anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by the obsessive desire to lose weight and refusal to eat food, which can lead to dangerously low body weight.

Statistically it's the most deadly of all mental illnesses, but those afflicted have a hard time recognizing the gravity of their situation.

Sturgeon calls that night back in 1994 her "peanut butter incident," and it stands out in her mind even 23 years later. But recognizing her problem was not her turnaround point. She suffered from the disease for another 18 years, from California to Kentucky, and from age 25 to age 42.

"It's like the anorexia takes on a life of its own in your mind. It becomes its own entity in your mind and you have no say so anymore," Sturgeon said on a recent day in her Methuen apartment. "The only thing that will satisfy the anorexia is death."

Today, Sturgeon is a full-time author, activist, public speaker and self-described "queer," who uses her own life experiences to educate the public about the taboo and little-known horrors of eating disorders, and to instruct doctors and support groups on how to be inclusive to members of the LGBTQ community, like herself.

"Back then," she says of the early 1990s, "especially for people of the LGBTQ community, they didn't know how to treat eating disorders."

Sturgeon said she's found that many treatment centers and support groups don't know how to monitor an appropriate weight for a transgender person in the middle of their transition, for instance, a time during which time they are taking excess hormones.

The lesbian community in San Francisco was not welcoming to Sturgeon when she lived there, she said, because they saw anorexia as a "cow down" to the patriarchy -- succumbing to a man's ideal body standard, though that wasn't her motivation at all.

Nearly 30 years later, Sturgeon says, many experts still don't know how to help the LGBTQ community with eating disorders.

Prevailing stereotypes imply that eating disorders, particularly anorexia, affect only affluent, straight, white women in their teens. But statistics show that at least 30 million Americans -- including men and women of all ages and ethnic groups -- suffer from an eating disorder, according to National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Among college students, 3.5 percent of sexual minority women, 2.1 percent of sexual minority men, and 16 percent of transgender persons reported having an eating disorder.

"Eating disorders are an equal-opportunity destroyer," Sturgeon said. "No one is immune. It affects everyone."

Decades of destruction For Sturgeon, a 47-year-old native of Frankfort, Kentucky, the trouble began shortly after she graduated from New York University with a degree in film and television in 1991.

She moved to San Francisco eight months later and a medical professional outed her to her family, though she hadn't yet come out to them herself. She also struggled to find a job, she said.

She was already stressed, but "the straw that broke the camel's back," she said, was when a friend mentioned that she'd put on weight.

By 1997, Sturgeon had moved back home to Kentucky after a California doctor bluntly told her to get her affairs in order, because her anorexia would kill her. A primary care physician in Frankfort, known affectionately as Butch, treated Sturgeon free of charge until her insurance kicked in about eight months later. "That man saved my life," Sturgeon said.

Other key players in the story -- a "tough love" psychiatrist, a dietitian she still speaks to today -- saw Sturgeon through phases of the next decade and a half. Still, struggles with her insurance combined with a lack of understanding about eating disorders created a dynamic in which Sturgeon never received help from a dedicated eating disorder treatment facility. She suspects that may be why it took her 20 years to begin to recover.

Finally, on May 7, 2012, Sturgeon was once again face-to-face with her own mortality. She was painfully weak and thin -- at her worst, she was eating only a few spoonfuls of yogurt and some crackers every few hours and working out excessively. She came to realize that she was both her own worst enemy and her only hope.

"It was basically me saying, 'It's time for me to fix me,'" Sturgeon said.

That morning, she ate two hard boiled eggs and a piece of toast -- a feast, compared to what she'd been eating -- and her recovery began, she said. Today, the voice in her head that told her to eat less, exercise more, lose just three more pounds is gone, she said.

She considers herself completely recovered.

But Sturgeon's body has been ravaged from being malnourished for nearly 50 percent of her life. She visits at least two doctors a week, takes 25 pills each day, and uses a cane because she has a 6-inch steel plate in her right femur from when she fell and the bone shattered due to osteoporosis. Her white blood cell count is low, and she suffers anxiety and thyroid problems.

When Sturgeon graduated from NYU, she was healthy.

"From my perspective, the reason Krista should be a poster child for the fight against anorexia is predominantly because you can see the effects of anorexia when you look at Krista," said Aym Icon, Sturgeon's manager and publicist.

Though she now maintains a healthy weight, Sturgeon, who also has Parkinson's disease, speaks a little slowly and occasionally has memory lapses. Medication she takes daily is slowly corroding her jawbone.

But Icon notes that Sturgeon could easily have suffered a different consequence: death.

"Krista is a walking miracle. It's important to me that her story is not hidden ... that everything she has gone through is not in vain," Icon said with deep emotion.

"It's so important for people who struggle with this to understand it," Icon continued. "You don't always die, it's preventable, and you can live a normal life and do whatever you want to do."

A public statement On June 2, World Eating Disorders Action Day, Sturgeon and Icon spent a few hours in Union Square, a busy park in downtown Manhattan.

Sturgeon stripped down to nothing but a bra, underwear and her Dr. Martens -- a trademark of sorts for her -- and blindfolded herself. They placed a poster board next to her explaining her history and goals, and asking that passers-by write words of encouragement on her exposed body in a show of support for those suffering from eating disorders.

More than 100 men and women stopped to offer words of encouragement. Icon made a video, which has been viewed tens of thousands of times.

"I want it to go viral, because the more people that can see me, just an average person, sitting out here, willing to be so vulnerable ... maybe other people can be open about their disease and they can get help," Sturgeon said.

"My ultimate goal would be to of course eradicate all eating disorders, but we know that probably won't ever happen," she added, then modified her utmost wishes. "My ultimate goal would be to get everybody who needs help, help."

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