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Program Aims to Combat Eating Disorders

Carmen Vaughan and Deborah Taylor, both licensed independent clinical social workers who share an office in Washington, D.C., were talking one day and realized most of the women they were treating at their psychotherapy practice either had an eating disorder or had body-image issues.

The pair realized that was not the future they wanted for their own daughters. They began doing research on eating disorders and eventually created a program for mothers and daughters aimed at stopping the development of the disorders before they start.

"My daughter was entering the fifth grade and that is the age when body image becomes an issue," said Vaughan, a McLean resident. "That is really what made me more passionate about it. We started a program for girls and their mothers because by the time they get in therapy it is almost too late. Prevention is the way to go and we found there was nothing out there on prevention."

The women began their quest five years ago, including three and half years of reading studies and other medical articles on eating disorders before designing a program that incorporates emotional as well as physical exercises for young girls and their mothers that promote a healthy outlook toward body image. One of the keys to the program was getting mothers and daughters to work together because research showed that a young girl's thoughts on body image are shaped by her mother's own experiences with the same issues.

"We found out the mother's body image impacts the daughter's," said Deborah Taylor, an Arlington resident. "What we're hoping to get at is that moms need to be careful in what they say and do. For example, if a girl sees her mother always dieting, she is more apt to do it too."

The program, Coaching Positive Body Image: Exercises for the Mind and Body, is geared toward girls ages 9 to 14 years old, but Vaughan and Taylor are working on similar programs for girls in high school and college and a program for boys.

"Unfortunately, it is so overlooked in boys. Boys are afraid to say anything because it's a 'girl' disease," Taylor said. "There is so little research on boys. The girls usually diet and the boys exercise."

MORE PEOPLE SUFFER FROM an eating disorder than AIDS, said Vaughan. In fact, worldwide the number of people suffering from an eating disorder is triple that of AIDS sufferers, according to their research.

The most common disorders are anorexia nervosa, which is often characterized by self-starvation; bulimia nervosa, where people binge eat and then purge; and binge eating disorder, where a person is a compulsive overeater, does not purge and becomes overweight.

According to the Vaughan and Taylor's web site, approximately seven million women and one million men suffer from eating disorders in the United States and as many as 20 percent die every year as a direct result of an eating disorder.

"Eating disorders are connected with emotional problems," said Anna Kanianthra, the nutrition supervisor with the Fairfax County Health Department. "If it can be identified at home, it can be prevented. Unfortunately, a lot of the symptoms [of an eating disorder] appear after they have really abused themselves."

Some of the warning signs of an eating disorder can include a fear of gaining weight; eating excessive amounts of food in short periods of time and then purging by self-induced vomiting or the use of laxatives, diuretics or other medications; obsession with exercising; dramatic weight loss in a short period of time; hair loss or pale or gray skin; avoidance of certain food groups; mood swings, depression or fatigue and infrequent or the loss of menstrual periods in girls who have reached puberty.

"I don't think human beings were designed to hate their bodies and we're talking hate their bodies," Vaughan said. "It's only when it gets really outrageous do we notice. I don't know why there hasn't been a concerted effort to do something about eating disorders like there is for breast cancer or AIDS."

Vaughan and Taylor began offering the program through their practice and are now marketing it to schools and other civic groups.

THE PROGRAM CONSISTS OF two-hour sessions with the first hour devoted to the emotional well-being by working on boosting the young girls' self-esteem, teaching them the images in magazines are not attainable, helping them to set appropriate boundaries in school and relationships and advising them to be critical consumers.

"Even the skinniest models are airbrushed to look thinner," Taylor said.

The second hour is dedicated to the physical well-being and incorporates yoga, Pilates, aerobatics and other exercises.

"Those of us in the field understand the mind-body connection. People who don't have the connection, have problems," said Pam Frazier, a certified personal trainer from Vienna who helped create the physical portion of the program. "We teach the people, girls especially, that there is an exercise for everybody and that not all exercises are for everybody. There are different ways to doing everything and they have to find what works best for their body type. We try to emphasis your body type is what it is and you have to work with what you have."

Frazier said the program tries to teach the girls that exercise will make them feel better, stronger and more confident. But also that all it takes is about an hour of exercise three times a week to stay healthy.

"Exercise can reduce stress and anxiety and can help them feel more normal," Frazier said.

Having the girls go through the program with their mothers also gives them someone to turn to for help or encouragement. It also helps to build a stronger bond between the mothers and daughters, even though at times it may take a third party to drive the message home.

"Of course, there are times when the daughter won't listen to her own mother. Sometimes another mother can say something to another daughter and we'll try to make those connections," Taylor said. "Mothers and daughters who go through the program strengthen their relationships."

For more information on the mother-daughter program, visit the Vaughan and Taylor's web site at www.achieve-it.net.