In a Deadly Obsession, Food Is the Enemy

The demons that plagued Ms. Carpenter led to extreme dieting. As is typical with anorexics, no amount of weight loss was enough for her. Fans at her live performances were shocked by what they saw. The 145 pounds once on her 5-foot-4-inch frame had dropped to 91 pounds in 1975. By September 1982, she was down to 77 pounds. That was when she was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan with a critically low potassium level. “Her face was all eyes,” a friend later recalled.

Doctors and nurses helped her put on weight, but irreparable damage had been done. Ms. Carpenter went into fatal cardiac arrest on Feb. 4, 1983.

Since then, public awareness of eating disorders has come more sharply into focus, in part because celebrities began to reveal their struggles. To name but a few, their ranks have included Jane Fonda, Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, Calista Flockhart, Fiona Apple and Paula Abdul. When Amy Winehouse died in 2011 at 27, the cause was said to be drug and alcohol abuse. But her brother has said that her system might have better withstood the chemical onslaught were it not compromised by frequent bouts of bulimia.

Those in the grip of a disorder like anorexia do not always command the sympathy of others. A frequent reaction is finger-wagging that boils down to: Snap out of it. Just eat, for goodness sake.

Life, though, is rarely that simple for someone in torment — someone like Ayanna Bates, 20, who lives in Queens and works with Project Heal, a nonprofit that helps people with eating disorders pay for treatment. Typically, eating disorders take hold in adolescence, and Ms. Bates was no exception. When anxieties overwhelmed her at 13, she began to push food away. “Starving was used to hurt myself,” she told Retro Report, but “it was also used for control.”

“It was an exciting feeling because I felt, like, at the time that was the only thing I was good at,” she said. “So it gave me a sense of empowerment.”

Health professionals now understand that the disorder is not so much a willful refusal to eat as a complex interlacing of psychological, biological and environmental issues. “There’s been increasing understanding over the last several decades that this is a serious psychiatric illness,” said Dr. Evelyn Attia, director of the Center for Eating Disorders at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. “This is a brain-based disorder.”

Some people are believed to be genetically predisposed to the malady. Some react to childhood…

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