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China Daily Global / 2021-06 / 07 / Page001


By CHEN NAN | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-06-07 00:00

Experts see cases of extreme weight loss and gain as cause for concern

During the worst stage of her eating disorder three years ago, Zhang Qinwen, who stands 1.64 meters tall, weighed just 28 kilograms.

One day, she was taken to the hospital after suddenly fainting on a street in Shanghai. She didn't have the strength to take a single step, let alone get into a vehicle without help.

Just 22 years old at the time, Zhang was experiencing fatigue, hair loss and irregular menstrual periods. Her parents were extremely worried about her.

During her time in the hospital, Zhang wrote accounts of her battle with the eating disorder and shared them on social media platforms, receiving warm feedback from those with similar problems.

Since 2019, Zhang has devoted herself to public events, such as workshops, and she also makes films, which have put her in touch with people with eating disorders.

Her problems began in 2016, when she was a university student in Shanghai and turned to the internet for advice on watching her weight. She went to great lengths each day to burn calories-exercising for three hours and monitoring her diet by using weight-watcher apps.

Her weight soon dropped from 98kg to 83kg. Zhang continued to follow a strict diet and meticulously counted the calories she consumed every day, but then matters went out of control.

"I was involved in a constant tug of war with myself. Even though I realized I was thin, I didn't dare eat. It scared me to even think of eating," said Zhang, who was forced to suspend her schooling twice due to her health. "The issue was more psychological than physical," she added.

Now, one year into recovery, Zhang has launched and curated an exhibition being held at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum from May 14 to June 14-the first of its kind in China to center on eating disorders and body shaming, the act of deriding or mocking a person's physical appearance.

More than 40 items, including installations, paintings, photographs and poems, which Zhang collected from over 30 professional artists and amateurs through social media platforms, are on display at the exhibition.

The items include: paintings under the title "Self-Definition" by Jiang Wenfeng, an illustrator and art student at Wuhan University, Hubei province; "Fruit"-installations made of clay, acrylic and recyclable materials by Li Yuyuan, a student at Shanghai Theatre Academy; and "Trapped", an animation by Julia Chen, a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

The event has also attracted people with eating disorders, who share their stories. When it opened last month, these people held a collective wedding ceremony with each participant wearing a white veil.

Zhang, 25, who was born and raised in Shanghai, said, "We wanted to say that we were 'marrying' ourselves first before we could love others."

Her weight has now risen to about 60kg, she has not taken any medication relating to her diet for a year and is ready to finish university next year.

"As survivors, we want to raise awareness of eating disorders and body shaming, as well as give hope to people who are experiencing such problems. We want to tell them they are not alone and that everything will be fine," Zhang said.

Bad situation

When Wang Li, a university student in Shanghai, went to see a doctor after experiencing irregular periods, the medic told her, "You are just 20 years old, but you have the uterus of a 5-year-old girl and the ovaries of a 55-year-old postmenopausal woman."

Wang, who shared her story at the exhibition of being a patient with anorexia, said, "I realized my situation was bad and I was determined to overcome it."

Her problems began when her boyfriend broke up with her three years ago after telling her, "You are a bit fat".

Wang decided to lose weight, which she believed would help her regain confidence. She consumed fewer than 800 calories a day, much less than the amount required for a female adult's basic metabolism. She also exercised for two hours every day.

"The eating disorder felt like a scar in my heart, and I had to do something to stop it bleeding," Wang said.

Anny, a university student in Beijing, attended the exhibition and gave an account of body shaming and her eating disorder.

"My parents work in the garment business and they cared a great deal about how I looked. They would tell me, 'You look like a meatball' or 'It would be great if you could fit into this dress'. As a result, I thought I might look better if I lost some weight," Anny said.

When she started a diet, she went too far, drinking only water and eating vegetables and meat, but no carbohydrates. "After I ate, I usually threw up," she said.

After going to hospitals, Anny finally took regular meals again. "I now weigh about 77kg and I'm happy," she said.

Zhang said that in recent years she has seen an increasing number of people experiencing issues such as eating disorders and body shaming.

From the messages she received on her social media accounts, she noticed more young people, including teenagers of both genders, voicing concerns about eating disorders and body shaming.

"They told me they started to lose weight because everyone at their schools was constantly talking about dieting. They are concerned about their looks, and ask themselves questions such as 'Are my thighs too big?' I want to tell them that they should not define themselves by the readings on a set of weighing scales," Zhang said.

When she initially started to organize events to spread awareness about eating disorders, people said, "So what?"

Now, more and more people are joining Zhang's events to gain an understanding of the issue. "There has been an obvious change," she said.

In March last year, medical journal The Lancet reported that eating disorders are a disabling, deadly and costly mental condition that impairs physical health to a great degree and also psychosocial functioning.

It said eating disorders have been on the rise for the past 50 years, with more than 1.6 million people being diagnosed with such a condition. Those age 14 to 25 are most at risk.

Shanghai Mental Health Center has witnessed a rise in the number of patients with these disorders. In 2002, it only received eight such cases, compared with more than 2,700 in 2019.

Chen Jue, director of the facility's Eating Disorders Center, said in an earlier interview that just a few decades ago, the condition was extremely rare in China. The main focus of most people in low-paid blue-collar jobs was putting food on the table.

"Nowadays, being slim is not only associated with beauty, but also with self-discipline, success and even social class," Chen said.

The rise of social media, with online influencers regularly showing off their "perfect" bodies-face as small as a hand and waist thin enough to hide behind a sheet of A4 paper-has triggered competition among young Chinese.

The pursuit of bodily perfection is also evidenced by the booming cosmetic surgery industry in the country.

Last month, a group of "before "and "after" photos featuring operations to shape the calf muscles triggered controversy online. The surgery, which involves cutting nerves that control the muscles, is said to effectively slim the legs.

While some people proudly displayed their slim legs after the operation, others said they had experienced side effects, such as pigmentation.

Luo Chun, a doctor in the neurology department at a hospital in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, said: "I was shocked by the surgery. It's very difficult for nerves to recover after they have been cut. This leads to weakness and muscle wastage-even paralysis. It is no exaggeration to say that this kind of surgery is self-harming.

"Those beauty standards are twisted, toxic and harmful."

Other extreme

For Liu Sibo, 30, who has been taunted by the word "fat" since she was a young girl, eating disorders go to the other extreme.

She said she was subjected to ridicule by her classmates during lunchtime at elementary school because of the amount of food she ate.

Liu, who was born in Hebei province and is an actress, said: "I grew up being laughed at. I got used to it, but my unhealthy relationship with food didn't end until my health declined."

She was unable to control her eating, and her condition worsened. She developed high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, diabetes and even lost the sight in one eye. Since May 2019, she has taken medicine nine times a day and about 60 pills daily to keep her body functioning.

In April, Liu was admitted to China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing, where she underwent sleeve gastrectomy surgery, a newer type of minimally invasive weight-loss procedure.

"It was devastating for me to lose the sight in one eye. I am an actress, and eye contact is crucial for my work, which gives me confidence. I feel relieved and satisfied when I portray another person," said Liu, who weighed 125kg before she received hospital treatment.

"I was afraid to go to a doctor. I just ignored the problems, but when I developed symptoms and they affected my career and health, I wanted to change things," she said.

Since the end of March, she has posted more than 50 short videos, recording her treatment and life before and after entering hospital. Liu now has nearly 30,000 followers on the Douyin social media platform.

She has won considerable support from fans. During her time in the hospital, Liu tried to look good each day by wearing makeup and different hairstyles. She also tried to cheer up other women who had similar problems.

In 18 days after the surgery, Liu lost more than 20kg, sharing this news with her fans, who gave her 42,000"likes".

"I was encouraged by these people, who I had never met. They cared about me and shared their stories with me. I want to tell my own story to help those with similar problems," she said.

A visitor to a Shanghai exhibition on eating disorders and body shaming is attracted by a work featuring anxiety about personal appearance. CHINA DAILY

A work by Zhou Qianyu at the exhibition shows people comparing their appearance to that of a fashion model. CHINA DAILY

Zhang Qinwen, curator of the exhibition, stands beside a work portraying a woman who is ashamed of her body. CHINA DAILY

People who have recovered from eating disorders pose for a photo at the exhibition with their supporters. CHINA DAILY

Zhang Qinwen stands beside a work by Jin Xinbei, who started to eat regularly again at age 20, after suffering from an eating disorder. CHINA DAILY

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