THE word “rabbit” has a lot of connotations in pop culture. One of them refers to a disturbing trend.
In online chat groups, women suffering from eating disorders called themselves “rabbits.” For a long time, they went largely unnoticed by the broader society.
That changed when an online forum on Baidu.com, China’s equivalent of Google, gathered more than 34,500 followers and 5.5 million posts about eating disorders.
The forum called itself cui tu, which literally means “purge.” On it, women anonymously exchanged information about their eating disorders.
What’s disturbing is that many people don’t realize how deadly food disorders can be. Those suffering from bulimia binge eat and then self-induce vomiting to get rid of the food and its calories. The result is anorexia, or dangerously low weight levels.
People suffering from the disorder hid from exposure by calling themselves “rabbits” because the word is Chinese sounds similar to the word for “purge,” or tu.
Posts on the forum described a certain pleasure at the process of throwing up food to stay slim. But the longer purging is practiced, the harder it becomes.
“At the beginning, I would throw up by inserting a finger down my throat,” said an anonymous poster, who only identified herself as “W.”
“But now I have to shove a fist down to make it work. The back of my hands are full of scars because I can’t help from biting them when trying to force myself to vomit. Some people use a gastric tube, but I’ve never tried it.”
Psychologists said the disease is not as common in China as it is in Western countries, where high-profile models, movie celebrities and even the late Princess Diana have come out to reveal their bulimia.
In China, cases are on the increase.
“The origin of the disease is usually an extreme weight-loss diet,” says Feng Qiang, a doctor with the Shanghai Mental Health Center. “These women push themselves away from a normal appetite, but if cravings overtake them, they wolf down as much food as they can.”
After the gluttony comes the guilt and the self-induced vomiting. Gradually, bulimia becomes a way of indulging in food while maintaining a slim figure.
“Bingeing and purging become obsessive behavior,” says Feng. “Many of these women know what they are doing is not healthy, but they just can’t stop themselves.”
The problem is largely blamed on popular culture and the mantra that “thin is beautiful” — an obsession promoted and reinforced by movie and TV celebrities, fashion magazines and beauty-products commercials.
“The culture of pursuing body perfection is where eating disorders start,” Feng says. “It’s a concept that misleads a lot of young people.”
One of them is a forum user who goes by the online name “Daner1109.” In a post, she said she weighed 49 kilograms when she got married in 2010. But things began going downhill after the birth of a child a year later. Because of an over-rich diet during pregnancy, her weight soared to 69 kilograms by the time the baby was delivered.
“I went on a diet for a year,” she said. “I cut out almost all carbohydrates and fats.”
But as her weight gradually dropped, a craving for desserts and sweet drinks soared. By the end of 2013, the dam finally broke, and she started binge eating. To make up for the guilt she felt, she forced herself to throw up everything she ate.
Soon the practice became obsessive and her health deteriorated. She began to suffer from anemia, dizziness and menstrual disorders. Her weight dropped to around 41 kilograms, but she still felt she was too fat.
“I started to realize that my mindset was not normal, but I couldn’t stop,” she said. “It continued until early last year, when I realized I was destroying myself.”
No one in her family, including her husband, knew what was going on. They chalked her problems up to a “weak stomach” after the birth of her child and encouraged her to eat more.
“I have tried to lower the frequency of purges,” she said. “Now I do it twice or three times a week, much less than before. But I still can’t control the thought that I’m too fat.”
“Daner1109” said she doesn’t know where to turn for help, but at least she’s ahead of many bulimia sufferers who deny they have a problem in the first place.
Following widespread complaints that cui tu was encouraging rather than trying to help women with eating disorders, Baidu.com shut down the forum. But that didn’t stop demand for such a site. “Rabbits” started a new forum called bao shi cui tu, which translates as “binge and purge,” to continue sharing their experiences.
On the forum, they discuss what kind of drinks are best to help induce vomiting and what to do when feelings of weakness and sweat occur.
No one quite knows how widespread the problem may be. The latest data on cases of eating disorders in Beijing and Shanghai was recorded in 2014. Peking University No. 6 Hospital, one of the largest mental health institutions in China, said it handled 150 cases that year, a 100-fold increase from before 2000.
A wider picture of the problem comes from anecdotal information published by independent psychological institutes.
Psychologists said patients with eating disorders usually suffer cognitive distortions related to body shape and weight.
“Many of them are thin to the point of being unhealthy,” said the Shanghai Mental Health Center’s Feng. “Some of these women weigh less than 35 kilograms, but they still feel that they are too fat. Long-term malnutrition may threaten their lives. Such patients need hospital treatment.”