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The Perfect Look: eating disorders

Two Utah women share their stories of how a desire to look perfect turned into a dangerous eating disorder and how they're now winning the battle against this destructive quest to be perfect.
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC 4 Utah) -  According to Forbes Magazine, Salt Lake City is the vainest city in the nation. In fact, the desire for the perfect look drives Utah women to spend more money on beauty products, gym memberships, and plastic surgery than women in any other state.

Two women recently sat down with ABC 4 Utah to share their very personal stories of how their push for perfection left them depressed and fighting for their lives.

Two women. Different ages, different backgrounds. And although they're almost strangers, they're united with a common problem and now share a common goal.

Together, they founded a Utah chapter of Project Heal, a national, non-profit organization helping women with eating disorders get the treatment they need.

For Ali Hougnou, a self described perfectionist, her struggle with an eating disorder started as a kid.

“I was the girl who would eat lunch in the nurses office because I was teased so often,” Hougnou recalls.

Bullied for her weight, Hougnou made the choice to lose it. But as time passed, losing weight wasn't enough. Ali had something to prove.

“To be recognized as the girl who looked good and who had such self control really became such an addiction for me,” Hougnou said. “It became like, let me show you what I can do and let me show you how little I can eat.”

Samantha Hope has a similar struggle, but it started differently from Ali’s.

“I'm a mom and I have four kids.”

Samantha had just given birth to her third baby when her doctor told her she was keeping an eye on her weight.

“At the end of our appointment she says, ‘I'm watching you for an eating disorder’ and I just kinda laughed and thought, what, she's crazy,” Hope says.

But soon Samantha saw herself wasting away.

“I noticed how obsessed I was getting with stepping on the scale.”

Both women were diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by going without food for long periods of time. A disorder common in Utah according to local mental health experts.

“About two percent of women in Utah have a diagnosed eating disorder. That's significantly higher than the national average.”

It's four times higher than the national average according to Tera Lensegrav-Benson, a clinical psychologist practicing in Utah.

“Given that it's the most deadly mental illness, it's really a public problem,” Lensegrav-Benson says.

A problem amplified by stick like figures shown in magazines, movies, and seen on television.

“That's probably the biggest thing that concerns me, that my daughter or other girls that are vulnerable to developing eating disorders would see examples in women that are based on appearance rather than identity based on who they are and who they want to be and what they want to accomplish,” says Lensegrav-Benson.

Samantha says that's hard for a mom with very little time to herself.

“When I first went to the center they talked about self care, i'm like i'm a mom,there's no time for me.”

But she says taking that time has helped her fight the urge to starve herself.

“I've been able to work up to a point where I can recognize it and move past it.”

Ali has done the same. After a short relapse in December last year, she finally set out for long-term success.

“It was the first time ever on an outpatient basis that I was able to pick myself up and say I don't want to do this anymore.”

Now, as a unified front, the two women have slowly come to accept their imperfections and are making a difference one meal at a time.

“We missed snack time,” they say jokingly together.

Treatment for eating disorders can be expensive with costs ranging $30,000 or more per month. That's why Ali and Samantha brought Project Heal to Utah. It's one of 20 chapters nationwide offering help to people in need. For more information visit Project Heal on Facebook.
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