By Rehema Ellis Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/7/2005 7:52:06 PM ET 2005-02-08T00:52:06

Twenty-year-old Lacey Hanson, like most college women, takes her looks seriously. She's concerned about what people think of her. Growing up, her concerns grew into an unhealthy obsession.

"It started as a simple diet to lose a few pounds and it just became out of control," says Hanson.

Hanson became anorexic — starving herself in high school. At one point, this high-achieving, straight "A" student was more than 30 pounds underweight.

"I was the typical teenager and yet I was slowly killing myself," she says.

Ten million Americans, mostly girls, have an eating disorder. Experts say it's a struggle compounded by media images that glorify the super thin. And now, Web sites that endorse eating disorders are contributing to the problem. These sites encourage girls to eat as little as possible, even offering advice on how to disguise what they deny is a disease and instead call a lifestyle choice.

Some of the Web sites have been shut down by Internet providers after health groups protested, but many continue to thrive.

"It's extremely dangerous and reckless, I believe, to try and portray it as something you can mess around with," says Dr. Johanna Marie McShane, who specializes in treating eating disorders at her private practice in LaFayette, Calif.

A growing problem for older women
Eating disorders have long been associated with teenage girls. But now doctors report that a growing number of older women are developing them or have hidden these problems for years.

Four weeks ago, 41-year-old Sorelle Marsh checked into the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia, one of the largest treatment facilities for eating disorders.

"I'm bulimic and I need help," says Marsh. "I can't deny it anymore."

A married mother of two children, Marsh would overeat and then force herself to throw up several times a day — a secret she kept for 25 years.

Like Marsh, 24 percent of the patients treated at Renfrew are now middle-aged women. That's an increase of 33 percent over the past three years.

Marsh says she's learning how not to use food to deal with other problems.

"If I'm angry, I say I'm angry," says Marsh. "If I'm hurt, I say I'm hurt. But I do not deny myself of my feelings."

Hanson, too, is struggling not to slip back into her old habits.

"It's probably the hardest thing I've had to do in my life, but it's so worth it," she says.

Hanson's looking at herself differently now and is determined not to let a dangerous diet consume the rest of her life.

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