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Eating Disorders: A Growing Problem On College Campuses

Helen Carefoot |
September 19, 2014 | 11:29 a.m. PDT

Web Producer

Eating disorders are becoming more prevalent on college campuses (Rega Photography/Flickr Creative Commons).
Eating disorders are becoming more prevalent on college campuses (Rega Photography/Flickr Creative Commons).
I’ll always remember one of my first experiences in my dorm’s shared bathroom. As I brushed my teeth,  I overheard two girls chatting quietly, followed by a horrible retching sound.

“I’m going to an invite tomorrow and I’m wearing a tight dress,” one girl said to the other. “I do it all the time anyway.”

In that moment, I didn’t think much of my floormate making herself vomit to fit into a dress.

I knew this girl was hurting herself, so why wasn’t I more bothered by what she was doing? Why didn’t I say something to her?

Taking drastic measures to look a certain way didn’t seem so ludicrous to me because, as a young woman, I feel the same kind of pressures to look pretty and thin as the girl in the bathroom. Purging is something I hear about so often that it’s almost lost its shock for me. What was stopping me from doing something similar?

I wasn't bothered, because the girl in that bathroom very easily could have been me.

Conversations like the one between these girls in the dorm bathroom expose a burgeoning problem on college campuses: the increased prevalence of eating disorders. College students, particularly young women, are especially prone to developing eating disorders. This trend also shows no signs of stopping, with a 2010 survey reporting that 24.3 percent of college counseling center directors have noticed an increased number of clients with eating disorders.

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder are not petty preoccupations with food. Someone with an eating disorder is fighting an internal battle with mental illness that posesses serious health risks—eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of any mental disorder, including depression. Serious health consequences like low blood pressure, abnormally slow heart rates and osteoperosis wreak havoc on the body, and can develop as a result of these diseases.

So what is prompting all of these life-threatening conditions? In today’s media-saturated world, young women are bombarded with one message: be thin.

“I feel like with guys their masculinity isn’t as dependent on their physical body. I feel like as a male, if you have other redeeming qualities like wealth or intelligence, girls are still attracted to that and they think that’s cool,” Netty Morrelli, a senior majoring in Critical Studies, comments. “It doesn’t really go that way for girls. If your body isn’t perfect, even if you are really funny and really smart, those qualities tend to be overlooked.”

This is a problem that affects girls of all shapes and sizes. In a survey of 185 female students on a college campus, 5 percent felt pressure to be a certain weight, and of the percent that dieted for weight loss, 44% were of normal weight. 

READ ALSO: Orthorexia: A “Healthy Eating” Disorder?

Why are college students especially prone to developing these disorders?

Dr. Elizabeth A. Reyes, who coordinates the eating disorder treatment center at USC’s Engemann Student Health Center, has several ideas. 

“One thing that’s unique to college is that there’s developmentally a lot of pressure and comparison with yourself and others is one place,” Reyes explains. “In terms of what causes eating disorders, there’s a real range of factors that form a perfect storm.” 

Between school, extracurricular activities and the general pressures of being a young person, the average college student has a lot going on. When everything becomes too much, Reyes says the need to regain control can cause students to develop an unhealthy relationship with food. 

“The attraction towards focusing on your appearance is that it’s very concrete, and controlling what you eat is very tangible,” Reyes said. “It’s the illusion of control, because the more you restrict, you’re creating an equal and opposite binge. You actually end up losing control and getting into even more trouble.”

Behaviors that aren’t necessarily destructive, like cutting calories or working out, can soon become dangerous, especially in such a competitive environment. Walking around USC’s campus, it’s abundantly clear that the majority of the student body is very involved and very attractive. Living in Los Angeles, where people place so much emphasis on appearance, makes the pressure to fit society’s mold of “pretty” even more overwhelming. 

Although they are not to blame for young women developing eating disorders, the Victoria's Secret Angels are not realistic or healthy role models for body image (@endless_TV/Twitter).
Although they are not to blame for young women developing eating disorders, the Victoria's Secret Angels are not realistic or healthy role models for body image (@endless_TV/Twitter).
Between seeing the Victoria’s Secret Angels in the pages of a magazine or scrolling through Facebook, young women are bombarded with ideas of what they should and should not look like. The vast majority of these images depict a singular ideal: thin.

Thinspiration is everywhere. If I turn on the television, I'll see a Jenny Craig commercial or an ad featuring a model with endlessly thin legs not seen in nature. A friend of mine who watches her figure very closely has a poster emblazoned with Kate Moss’ motto, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” hanging above her bed. 

With so many messages from the media and peers, looking good becomes a competition. Women are pitted against each other and judged based on their looks. Magazines like Esquire have yearly competitions where readers vote for the sexiest woman alive, all based on looks. 

As a member of the Greek community, I've seen this first hand. Websites like GreekRank and Yik Yak encourage users to annonymously rank and judge fraternity men and sorority women based on their looks, pitting each organization against the others.

Glancing through the comment sections of these websites, it's very clear that these commenters are judging hundreds of women on how thin their legs are, or how good they look in their dresses. What if you don't live up to your house's reputation of hotness? What if you aren't as attractive as another girl or your arms are a little chubbier than your sisters'? In an already competitive environment like USC, this further focus and criticism can be extremely hurtful. Each woman is an individual, so why should she be judged alongside hundreds of other women?

"I think a lot of it does come out of personal insecurities," Morrelli, who is in a sorority, says. "If I feel like my legs are big, I’ll look at someone else’s legs and say, 'Hers are bigger than mine.' But then I stop myself and say, 'What am I doing? She’s a completely normal, healthy looking person.' I don't even realize I'm doing it."

Female athletes in aesthetic sports like dance, gymnastics and cheerleading are most prone to developing eating disorders. Sophomore Alexandra Allman, a member of USC’s chamber ballet company who has been dancing for 15 years, is not surprised. 

“I’ve seen a lot of it. Starting around high school girls get this perpetual obsession with it. It’s really sad because I think I know maybe three or four girls who have broken ankles because they’re not strong enough to hold themselves up on pointe,” Allman says. “I’ve seen girls pass out because they don’t have the energy to stand.”

Historically, eating disorders have been perceived as a problem that only affects young, affluent white women. The reality is, however, that eating disorders do not discriminate based on race. In fact, minority women who suffer from eating disorders are far less likely to seek treatment than their white counterparts, making their risk for severe and lasting harm much greater.

READ ALSO: Stay Happy And Healthy In College: Nutrition Tips

So what can we do to alleviate this pressure to be thin and perfect? How can we keep women healthy?

Solving this problem isn’t as simple as telling young women to have a thicker skin.

Until more sweeping remedies are put into place, it's up to us girls to take charge. Practice kindness. If you feel fat in a dress, don’t cut someone else down to make yourself feel better. Realize that the model you see in a magazine doesn't look like that photo in real life. Compliment someone on something other than their appearance. Don't hold yourself to impossible standards. Don't anonymously trash people on Yik Yak.

Take each day one day at a time and be kind to yourself. If you hear a girl about to puke in the bathroom, say something to her.

Tell her that there's so much more to her than how her dress fits.

Reach Web Producer Helen Carefoot here and follow her on Twitter here.



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