By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

Kaitlyn Bowman, 17, a junior at the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur in Villanova, used to hide food. No, she wasn’t an overeater, just the opposite. Her eating disorder was anorexia – she would hide the food so her family thought she ate it when she really didn’t.

“It probably began when I was 12 or 13, and it was very serious. I had to be hospitalized,” said Bowman, whose recovery is such she now gives talks to students and other groups explaining the signs and dangers of her illness.

The second child of Marybeth and Robert Bowman of St. Katherine of Siena Parish in Wayne sandwiched between older sister Allie and younger twin brothers Ryan and Kyle, there was nothing in her background to suggest anorexia. She certainly didn’t think she had it, even though she was way underweight for her height and age.

“No, I felt way overweight,” she said. {{more}}

“We started to suspect something when she was in the seventh or eighth grade. She was very thin, well below what her weight level should be,” Marybeth Bowman said. “We tried to build her up by increasing her calories, but it didn’t work.”

The reason it didn’t work of course was because she was not eating the food given to her. When she lost even more weight and her general health was being affected, her parents became concerned.

“We knew she had a problem, but I don’t think she did,” her mother said.

It was puzzling because in her mother’s view, she had no apparent problems, she had friends, she was a good student and she wasn’t bullied.

As for her friends, “they didn’t know; they thought I was sick with heart problems,” Kaitlyn Bowman said.

Ultimately her parents sought medical advice and it was recommended that she receive professional treatment for her apparent anorexia.

In September 2008, she was admitted to Philadelphia’s Renfrew Center, one of the nation’s leading facilities for the treatment of eating disorders. Its inpatient population is entirely female, which reflects the nature of eating disorders – most of the victims are women.

Bowman stayed at Renfrew with intensive treatment for seven weeks. Although eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia (binging and purging) often affect young girls, she did feel a bit out of place. The average age of patients at the facility is in the mid-20s, and she was the youngest patient at the time.

She did bond with one young woman, “Julia,” who was only slightly older than she, and they quickly became best friends. But she did not put her entire heart into the program, and after her release to outpatient therapy she began to relapse into old habits.

Nevertheless she and Julia stayed in touch. Julia attended Christmas events with her and she attended Hanukah celebrations with Julia.

In early 2009 Julia committed suicide, something that happens more frequently than one might suppose among those who have eating disorders.

If there was a single event that could be called a moment of truth for Bowman, Julia’s death was it.

“That gave me the motivation to get better; that’s what Julia would have wanted,” she said. “I was missing the little things, for example helping my sister pick out her prom dress. I began to think, ‘This isn’t worth it. This disease is going to make me or break me.'”

Determined to conquer her anorexia in spite of the real struggle involved, in March 2009 she re-entered the residential program at Renfrew for six weeks, and this time didn’t cheat.

Now, with a disciplined healthy diet, she has gained weight and is on the path to recovery.

“They say it’s a three-year process; her body seems to be coming back,” her mother said.

Determined to help others endangered by the illness, she has spoken at a number of venues detailing her experience and discussing the warning signs of potential eating disorders.

“I’ve spoken at my school, at Ursuline Academy, Villanova and other parishes and at a Renfrew conference,” she said.

Bowman can’t really pinpoint what triggered her own anorexia, “probably if anything, perfectionism and self-esteem issues,” she speculated.

“Eating disorders have nothing to do with food,” said Wendy Cramer, a professional relations coordinator with Renfrew.

She estimates there are 8 million to 10 million people in the country who have some kind of eating disorder, and others estimate even higher. It strikes people of all ages and all walks of life.

“It is really a psychiatric disorder, with any number of root causes – depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, drugs or alcohol. It strikes over-achievers and people with low self-esteem who are not happy with themselves. It has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder and suicide is not uncommon.

“We live in a culture that brainwashes women on how they are supposed to look and glorifies a thin body,” Cramer said.

Eating disorders are uniquely different than drug or alcohol abuse, she said, in that you can live with drugs or alcohol, but you cannot live without food.

With that said, “We focus on the underlying issues, not just making them eat,” she said.

Over the years Renfrew has treated about 55,000 women, Cramer estimated. With proper treatment most can overcome their eating disorder.

At this point, Bowman appears to be one of the real success stories. At Notre Dame she is a member of student council, participates in the theater program, the school newspaper and the health club, but above all, she speaks out to help other young people avoid the sometimes deadly trap of anorexia and other eating disorders.

For more information on eating disorders see

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.