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Chandler Rand has struggled with various eating disorders since childhood. She said she was healthy now, but described her recovery as an ongoing process. She still has to struggle with negative thoughts about her body image and weight.
“It’s like walking a tightrope, that’s what it means to me day to day,” Rand said.
In 2016, Rand was a Marine. She had been successfully treated for anorexia as a teenager, but after boot camp she started gorging on food and became bulimic.
“I don’t think I saw that as part of my eating disorder at the time,” Rand said. “I think I just saw it as part of being a good Marine.”
For Rand, that meant meeting strict military standards for weight and body fat percentage. At the same time, she was dealing with a sexual assault that occurred while she was in college.
“You just want to be obsessed with something other than fear and panic or sadness and guilt,” she said of how the assault affected her eating habits. “So you’re trying to put that high moral standard on food and fitness.”
People like Rand, and others who develop harmful eating habits while serving, haven’t received much attention from the Departments of Defense or veterans. But one study by the VA in Connecticut shows that veterans suffer from bulimia at about three times the civilian rate. Some develop eating disorders while on duty, and others struggle with eating habits after discharge.
Dr. Robin Masheb is a psychology researcher and founder of the Veterans Initiative for Eating and Weight. It is one of the only national programs that studies eating disorders among veterans.
“I was seeing very high rates of binge eating disorder in the veteran population, but I also wanted to know more about these other disorders,” Masheb said, noting that there isn’t a lot of research. available.
She said the risk factors unique to military service go beyond strict weight requirements.
“People have talked about being in very chaotic eating situations where you either have to go a long time without eating anything or have to eat very quickly under certain conditions,” Masheb said. “These types of things also seem to be risk factors for people who have eating problems later in life.”
She also said that veterans who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to develop eating disorders.
For ex-Marine Chandler Rand, it was all of the above.
“I think the military environment, height and weight requirements aside, can be a perfect storm for an eating disorder,” she said.
That’s because so much of military life is based on numbers and rules.
“You’re scored on your fitness tests and your combat fitness tests, and there are point systems for driving and proficiency and range,” Rand said. “You always want to be in that perfect scoring range, and so for me it was just another score that I had to achieve.”
Now, Masheb’s new study focuses on how VA doctors can screen veterans for eating disorders. She experiments with different ways of asking veterans questions about their relationship with food.
“Generally, men — and more generally, our veterans — are uncomfortable with this language of being out of control,” Masheb said. “Being in the military is having control.”
Masheb received a Department of Defense grant to test virtual therapy to help veterans with eating disorders. But she said they face other challenges, like busting myths that eating disorders only occur in young women or that overweight patients can’t have an eating disorder. .
In March, the Ministry of Defense published new guidelines that give more leeway to service branches to relax restrictions on weight and fitness standards.
Masheb and Rand agree this is a small step in the right direction. But the guidelines still leave it up to each branch to decide whether they want to continue relying on body mass index, or BMI, a measurement that uses height to determine weight goals.
Rand said the height and weight standards didn’t make sense to her.
“I think if people see that you don’t have to reach that number, or be below that number, I think that hopefully won’t put as many people at greater risk of [eating disorders],” she said. “I think it would ease the mood.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.