She was a great musician. A teenager turned accordion player turned flutist turned drummer turned singer. Karen Anne Carpenter was one of the all time great musical sensations of the 70s. On the stage she was glamorous and loved by the crowd. Thousands of people cheered her on as she performed classic song after song. She guest starred on TV shows, was on the front cover of many national magazines, and even toured the world. But amidst all this fame and fortune, she was dying. Karen Carpenter was suffering from an eating disorder not uncommon among the American population. Though disorder was not rare, it was rarely talked about. Most people at that time had never heard of the term Anorexia Nervosa. Sad but true, the death of Karen Carpenter in 1983 opened the eyes of the world to this life threatening disease.
Karen Carpenter was well known in the 70s and 80s for her dazzling music. She was one half of the sibling music group, The Carpenters. Born in 1950, she grew up listening to the Beatles and performing with her older brother Richard, and in her lifetime captured 3 Grammy's, 8 Gold Albums, 10 Gold Singles, and 5 Platinum Albums. The music she made was so great that she held the record for the most Top 5 hits in the first year of business. You could say that she lead her life in the spotlight. Young girls looked up to her. She was a role-model and a symbol of American culture. At least, this is what she was trying to be. As it turns out, it was these social pressures that ultimately lead to her downfall.
Richard Carpenter recalls that Karen was "a chubby teenager". Genetically, she wasn't meant to be super thin. Unfortunately for this singer, the only body that she would stand to have was a thin one. The dieting began in 1967 when Karen's doctor put her on a water diet, bringing her weight down from 140 lbs to 120. When she had made it down to 115 lbs, people told her she looked good, but she could only reply that this was just the beginning of the weight loss, and that she wanted to lose still more. By the fall of 1975, Karen was down to 80 lbs. She was taking dozens of thyroid pills a day, and throwing up the little food that she ate. Karen's body was so weak that she was forced to lay down between shows, and the audience was gasping at her body as she walked on stage. It was this year in Las Vegas that Karen collapsed on stage while singing "Top of the World". It was a big scare to the audience and her family. After being rushed to the hospital, it was reported that Karen was 35 lbs underweight. It was this final collapse that made Karen Carpenter realize that she had a serious problem. She went to doctors and therapists, and eventually began to believe that she was well. However, in reality, her body was still suffering from the lack of food, the over dosages of laxatives, the lack of sleep, and the anxiety of being on the road. When she died in 1983, it was a shock to many people who believed that she had been cured.
The emergency call came at 8:51 am on February 4, 1983. Karen Carpenter's mother found her naked and unconscious on the floor of a walk-in wardrobe closet in their home in Downey, California. She was rushed to the hospital where attempts were made to save her life, but within an hour, Karen Carpenter was dead. She died of a cardiac arrest caused by the strain that the anorexia had put on her heart. At the age of 32, she was 5'4", but weighed only 108 lbs.
Karen Carpenter was vibrant and energetic, they said. As Gil Friesen, the president of A&M Records described her, she was "...the girl next door, always up even when she was down". She had the common signs of anorexia. She was sweet, but kept her emotions inside. She was the kind of person who would take care of other people, but not herself. They called her a living skull, and a tormented and unhappy woman. She was psychotic about her weight, and self-conscious about her natural pear-shaped chubbiness. Karen Carpenter was a talented, ambitious young white female from a middle class home. She was the prime example of a victim of anorexia nervosa.
Anorexia Nervosa is often referred to as the stars or starlets disease. Sometimes also called the slimmers' disease, or the rich women's disease. Anorexia is especially common among young white girls and those who need to have more control over their lives. Among anorexics, you will find female hyper-achievers, fashion models, dancers, gymnasts, and ballet troupes. It is the good girls disease.
Ever since Karen Carpenter died in 1983, doctors, scientists, and therapists, among many others, have been investigating the cause of this fatal eating disorder. One common cause, as everyone agrees, is American culture and the media. For the past few decades, there has been an American philosophy of "trim and slim". This is a nation where it is sexy to be skinny and where fitness centers and more recently, dieting supplements, are being advertised more than anything else. The film and television industries are only perpetuating the image conscious nature of people within the American society. Studies have shown that since the beginning of Playboy magazine, the centerfold models have become thinner and thinner, leading to the ideal that thin is good. Super skinny magazine models act as role models, and girls find themselves dieting so that they can look like Twiggy the Shrimp, or whoever the supermodel of the decade may be. Still, many find themselves striving for the gymnast ideal, or thinning down to look like all of the other girls in the ballet class. It is a wide spread problem that is only getting worse as time goes on.
Many sources report that there may be a correlation between a certain style of parenting and anorexia. Scientists are saying that anorexia can develop when parents set excessively high standards of achievement or exert too much control over their children. Children of authoritative parents don't rebel. Instead, they find areas in their lives where they do have control. One of them being their eating habits.
Eventually, girls begin to develop a distorted view of themselves. Psychological disturbances cause them to stop seeing themselves realistically, which in turn causes them to have a low self-image. Often, other peoples' references to chubbiness, pudginess, or baby fat sends the signal that weight must be lost. Bright and successful people see themselves as disgustingly fat. They feel that they have to measure up, but that they can't unless they change their body weight. Anorexia is about control. For some, dealing with pressure means taking control of food.
In 1983, it was predicted that one in every 300 women between the ages of 14 and 25 suffer from anorexia. All together, one in 200 women of all ages are victims of the disease. Studies have also found that one tenth of all female college students have at one time or another suffered from an eating disorder. 15 years ago, there were half a million young women with anorexia, and today, that number has risen to more than 2 million . Writers call it an "underestimated phenomenon", a great epidemic.
To some people, dieting means cutting down on the sweets, and taking an apple for a snack instead of a candy bar. But to others, dieting has an entirely different meaning. Like Karen Carpenter, many people decide to go on water diets, where they hydrate themselves to the extent that their bodies are filled up with water and nothing else. Some are bullimic and force themselves to throw up after they've eaten. Many people take laxatives, or just stop eating all together. One author wrote about a woman who would eat half a raisin at a time so that she wouldn't consume as much food, a girl who would swallow cords to get herself to throw up, and a college student who would rummage through garbage cans late at night to collect food so that she could eat and then throw up everything that she had found.
Though anorexia nervosa has a surprisingly high mortality rate, it still has serious consequences. As in the case of Karen Carpenter, it can lead to serious cardiac problems, which have proven to be fatal. Anorexia can cause a decrease in blood pressure and body temperature, hair loss, loss of menstrual cycle, and a decrease of protein in the blood. Bulimia can cause ulcers, hernias, a dependence on laxatives, and the loss of tooth enamel. When the body is deprived of food, it must look elsewhere for nutrients, and eventually begins feeding on muscle protein. The heart muscle weakens, and this leads to irregular heart rhythms and congestive heart failure. Additionally, anorexia causes an imbalance of electrolytes which causes cardiac abnormalities. In some cases, the bodies of anorexics have digested their own nervous systems. In the end, five to ten percent of the victims of anorexia die within 5 to 10 years of suicide or from depression caused by the illness, malnutrition, and heart problems.
Before Karen Carpenter died, no one spoke of any of this. Girls starved themselves, but they didn't know that there were thousands of other girls that did the same things. They surely didn't know that their eating habits would kill them. No one was aware of anorexia and it's devastating consequences. Up until 1983, eating disorders were not taken seriously. They were treated like any other bad habits that no one ever mentioned. Many thought that there was a quick fix to the problem, and that the solution to an eating disorder was simply to start eating again. Girls believed that they were cured, when in fact, they weren't.
This problem would have continued unnoticed had it not been for the death of Karen Carpenter. Immediately following Karen's death, there was a massive surge in the media regarding the great singer and her battle against anorexia. Eating disorders all of a sudden became highly publicized. Magazines and journals began publishing articles, and the news had top stories about anorexia and it's devastating effects. All of the media coverage on Karen's death encouraged other celebrities to go public with their stories. The death raised the profile of eating disorders in the entertainment community. Jane Fonda and Cherry Boon O'Neill, daughter of singer Pat Boone, admitted to their eating disorders and committed themselves to getting help. Also coming forward with their problems were Kathy Rigby, gymnast and actress, and actresses Jeannine Turner and Lynn Redgrave.
Karen Carpenter's death gave people quite a scare. In the days and months to follow the tragic incident, there were a flurry of frightened phone calls to medical centers from people who had been jolted by the singer's death and wanted help. Psychologically-oriented groups had a doubling in attendance following Karen's death. In addition, many people began to launch voluntary support groups for victims of eating disorders.
Karen Carpenter spurred public interest in anorexia. Soon their were clinics specializing in eating disorders. Richard Carpenter developed a fund dedicated to his sister for researching anorexia. This death awakened the public and lead to a focus on the problem at hand. It has been said that Karen Carpenter is responsible for making America aware of the problems of eating disorders. She brought it out of the closet and made it famous. As one person said, "...she's a name, and that's going to bring more attention."
When I walk around school, I see people who feel the need to be thinner, who look at themselves in the mirror and see fat and ugliness. People often comment on the fact that I'm thin, and say, "You're really skinny". Being a female, a dancer, an over-achiever, vibrant and energetic, many would think that I suffer from the same disease that killed Karen Carpenter. But since 1983, much has been discovered about eating disorders. If someone was to suggest to me that I had an eating disorder, I would hand them this paper and educate them on what it really means to suffer from anorexia. The fact is, eating disorders are a big problem, no matter where you go. They effect me just as they effect everyone else. You don't have to have an eating disorder feel its consequences.
Today, 8 million people suffer from eating disorders. For some reason or another, 7 million women and one million men are intentionally depriving their bodies of food. As time goes on, models are becoming thinner and thinner, as are American girls. 15 years after the death of Karen Carpenter, we are still suffering from this devastating disease, maybe more so than we were in 1983. However, the problem is no longer our ignorance to the fact that eating disorders exist and are killing thousands. Though the media perpetuates the problem, we are still better off than we were during Karen Carpenter's lifetime. We now have knowledge, which will eventually destroy the wrath of all eating disorders. Karen Carpenter can be seen as the great surge of awareness to the millions of people who suffer from this serious disease. Her struggle with anorexia has opened our eyes to the danger of eating disorders, and begun the race to finding the cure.