Is our beautiful city dangerous to our health?

Santa Barbara: one of the most breathtaking cities in the world. Deemed one of the most picturesque places to live, Santa Barbara emanates beauty from every vantage. When I take a walk down State Street, visit the shops of Montecito or spend an afternoon at the beach, I feel lucky to live in such a lovely place. And I can’t help but notice that the people appear just as lovely. Sometimes I wonder if behind the perfectly manicured appearance is an unfit pressure for a perfectly manicured life.

As a therapist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders at Recovery Road Eating Disorder Programs, I see clients every day whose struggle is far more than skin deep. Most lament a pressure to match their own physical allure with the appeal of this city. However, for those who suffer with eating disorders, I know that it is about far more than vanity.

It is a common misconception that eating disorders are merely about being thin and looking good. While that might be what first meets the eye, beneath the pursuit of outward beauty are broken lives and hurting people. Eating disorders are very serious psychological disorders that require professional help. While much of our community values healthy eating and fitness, for those who suffer from eating disorders, these tenets are taken to the extreme and likely guise a very serious illness.

Typically, people with eating disorders are very good at portraying a picture-perfect image. They may appear happy, confident, successful and popular. Oftentimes, they are the ones who seem to have it all together. However, I have worked in this field long enough to know that just beneath that façade is a lot of pain and brokenness.

Controlling one’s food and body is a way to cope with overwhelming feelings or life circumstances. A person with an eating disorder turns to diet and exercise in much the same way that an addict turns to drugs or an alcoholic turns to alcohol. Paradoxically, obsessions with food and weight anesthetize unbearable emotional pain.

An eating disorder may start with an innocent diet or desire to lose 10 pounds before summer. But for some, this diet spins out of control until it usurps one’s entire life. It becomes no longer about vanity, but about emotional survival. Of course, not everyone who wants to lose 10 pounds develops an eating disorder. There are many genetic, cultural and sociological factors that contribute to the development of this illness.

Those who develop eating disorders tend to be temperamentally people-pleasing, sensitive, perfectionistic, high-achievers and have low self-esteem. While eating disorders are not limited to any one racial or economic group, they tend to manifest widely in upper socio-economic sets. And if you haven’t noticed, we live in one of the most expensive communities in the world!

Eating disorders are tragically common in our beloved city. Santa Barbara exudes opulence, a thin and beauty ideal, and is home to many college campuses, which are known to be fertile grounds for eating disorders. In 2008, it was estimated that about 25 percent of students at UCSB struggled with an eating disorder. Santa Barbara is also home to people with wrecked lives, broken families, financial and personal crisis. Situate these human conditions within a picture-perfect culture and we’ve got a perfect storm for eating disorders. Beneath the appearance of a manicured life is a messy reality.

At Recovery Road, I work with an incredible team of experts to help those with eating disorders to overcome their illnesses. We help people develop skills to cope with overwhelming emotions and to use tools other than their eating disorder behaviors to manage life. At Recovery Road, we understand that eating disorders are more than skin deep.

Rachel Cantrell is a licensed marriage and family therapist at Recovery Road Eating Disorder Programs.