Eating Disorders

Breaking the silence: How Karen Carpenter’s death gave a voice to eating disorders

September 18, 2017

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A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

Meet Katy

Karen Carpenter was an amazing woman.  She was talented, ambitious, and arguably one of the greatest singers of all time.

She died of an eating disorder on February 4, 1983, at the age of 32.

At the time, very little was known about eating disorders, and they certainly weren’t talked about publicly.  Karen’s death started a conversation and brought attention to this dangerous illness.

“The curse of the blessed.”

Dr. Ed Tyson, physician and eating disorders specialist, describes this illness as “the curse of the blessed,” meaning that those who are predisposed to eating disorders also tend to be some of the most gifted, empathetic and amazing human beings on the planet.

Looking back, Karen had many of the risk factors for an eating disorder:

  • Having a close family member who suffers from a mental health condition: Her brother suffered from addiction to a prescription sleeping medication.
  • Being female: Although, men do get eating disorders too, it appears that in anorexia and bulimia the incidence rate is higher in females.  In binge eating disorder, it appears to be closer to 50/50.
  • History of dieting: Karen reportedly went on a strict diet as a teenager, prescribed by a doctor.   Some studies have shown that for teens, going on a diet increases their risk of developing an eating disorder 12x that of their peers.
  • Negative energy balance: She wasn’t consuming enough energy (i.e. calories) to sustain her body.  For some people, perpetually undereating (even if unintentional to start with) can “set off” the eating disorder.
  • Perfectionism: Karen was in the public spotlight.  She was a performer, a subculture of people who are always striving for perfection in their work.  Also consider the pressure related to weight, shape and overall appearance for someone in the public eye.
  • Body image dissatisfaction: It is said that Karen hated her “hourglass” figure and that was why she went on a diet.  People who knew her well report that she often judged her body negatively when she saw photos or videos of herself on stage.
  • Thin ideal internalization: She grew up in the “Twiggy era” where the cultural beauty ideal was extreme thinness for women.
  • Trauma: Karen was married to a man who turned out to be physically and emotionally abusive to her, and at the time of her death she was in the process of getting divorced after having been married only 14 months.


Playing with fire

Karen was restricting her calories, and had lost a drastic amount of weight.

At the same time she was dangerously malnourished, she was also abusing thyroid medication, laxatives and syrup of ipecac.

Syrup of ipecac is what poison control used to tell people to use with an ingestion of a poisonous substance at home, and emergency rooms used it too.  People with eating disorders have also used it to purge their food.  With repeated use, the ipecac causes muscles to break down, including the heart – it becomes toxic to the body and can cause sudden death.  

Eating disorders advocates have lobbied the FDA to have it banned from over-the-counter status because it was proving to be so dangerous.

In fact, Karen’s official cause of death was ipecac poisoning.


Nobody knew how to help her

Back at that time, we sadly still thought eating disorders were caused by parents, and by “compulsive dieting.”   We now understand that it’s so much more complicated than that.

Anorexia was included in the DSM (a diagnostic manual) in 1952, and bulimia in 1980.  So we formally acknowledged anorexia much sooner than we did bulimia – both of which Karen suffered from.

Karen’s eating disorder was something barely recognized, and rarely talked about.  It’s hard to treat an illness you don’t understand.


The treatment she apparently received included:

  • Therapy: Outpatient visits with a psychologist
  • Brief hospitalization: Periods of medical stabilization lasting short periods of time when she was exhausted or dehydrated
  • Hyperalimentation“:  Infusing calories straight into her veins, causing rapid weight gain
  • Force feeding: Her loved ones trying to coax her to eat more.  Her band mate said, “From the outside the solution looks so simple.  All a person has to do is eat.  So we were constantly trying to shove food at Karen.”

Treatment strategies have come a long way since then.  Thank goodness – because the treatment she received was insufficient, ineffective and at times misguided.


Lessons learned from Karen’s legacy:

  • Karen’s story started a public conversation about eating disorders, which desperately needed to happen.
  • Eating disorders are deadly.
  • It IS possible to be too skinny (a revolutionary idea to the public in the Twiggy era).
  • Syrup of ipecac has a long history of being abused in eating disorders, and is very dangerous with chronic use.
  • Being “successful” in the music entertainment industry (or any other industry) doesn’t make a person happy.
  • Force feeding – whether it be trying to coax or force a person to eat, or pumping calories into their veins – doesn’t fix or cure the eating disorder.
  • Hospitalizations for medical stabilization are insufficient without longer-term specialized treatment.

Since Karen’s time, many celebrities have spoken publicly about their own eating disorders, bravely showing the world that it can happen to anyone, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

The more we understand, the better we will be able to help people recover.


Remembering the person she was

It’s easy to only think of the eating disorder when we think about Karen Carpenter.  But let’s not forget she was a human being.

Karen Anne Carpenter was a vibrant and creative woman.  She was passionate about her music, and persistent.  She persevered through multiple rejections from record labels.

In addition to being an amazing vocalist, she also had a gift for the drums and electric bass guitar.  Talk about talented!

She was a daughter, sister, bandmate, and friend.  She loved playing baseball and softball, as well as dancing.

Karen Carpenter was a wonderful human being, and deserves to be remembered as such.


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