7 Things College Activists Want You To Know & Understand About Eating Disorders

Imagine you’re opening the door to an elementary school classroom. Look at the students sitting at their tiny little desks as you walk inside. In elementary school, they’re too young to drive, too young to see a PG-13 movie without a parent, and probably even too young to cook their own meals. And yet, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 40-60 percent of the girls in that classroom are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. This concern will endure throughout the rest of their lives.

“30 million Americans will struggle with a full-blown eating disorder and millions more will battle food and body image issues that have untold negative impacts on their lives,” NEDA states on its website. For this reason, each year, NEDA hosts a week-long event called National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. This year’s theme is “Let’s Get Real.” Eating disorders are a national epidemic, but because of the stereotypes and misconceptions that surround them, many people don’t get the help they deserve and need.

Throughout NEDAwareness Week this year, Her Campus had the privilege of talking to several college activists about what they wish people knew about eating disorders. Time to get real, read up and educate yourself on this health issue. 

1. Eating disorders can affect people of any age, gender, or ethnicity

Because media representation of eating disorders tends to be limited to young white women, people often forget that mental illnesses don’t discriminate.

“I wish people knew that eating disorders can affect all people of different gender identities, race/ethnicities, sexual identities and physical abilities,” Alyssa Tabula, a junior at UCLA and co-director of UCLA’s student organization Body Image Task Force told Her Campus. “Although social media commonly portrays a single stereotype look for an individual with an eating disorder, they truly can affect anyone. There is a variety of different types of eating disorders, even some not visibly apparent.”

Alex Korodi, a junior at The Ohio State University and co-president of the student organization Body Sense, emphasizes, "This is not just a 'thin white girl' disease and the body positive community is pushing for greater representation of all types of people with eating disorders."

2. Eating disorders are more than just feeling insecure about food or your body

People tend to believe that eating disorders occur because people don’t like the way they look, and that if they could become more body positive, the disorder would be healed. In reality, it’s not that simple.

“Negative body image is not displeasure with one's reflection,” explained Mary Iellamo, a senior and president of Active Minds at Elms College. “It's a lot more than that. Imagine having this overwhelming fear of taking up space. Every breath, every step, every word—all of it reminds you of the fact that you have a body. It's that constant reminder that creates this mind-body division. That's where the eating disorder resides. It's not a diet. It's a denial of the flesh.”

Prachi Bisawi, junior at Rutgers and treasurer of Rutgers Eating Disorder Organization (REDO), has experienced misconceptions about body image firsthand.

“My body is the only one that my disorder transforms, everyone else looks the way they do,” she said. “That's why it used to be hard for me to talk about my eating disorder, because my very own friends would say things like, ‘If you think you're fat, then what am I?’ Like, that's the point, my disorder is dysmorphing my body, my brain is lying to me, and I can't help but believe it, and it has nothing to do with you.”

Holly Chok, junior at Rutgers and president of REDO, agreed, adding: “Eating disorders are NOT about the food. They are caused by an underlying issue like depression, OCD, etc. Food is used as a coping mechanism to gain control; focusing on food consumption and weight distracts from real issues—much like an addict uses drugs to mask the real problems.”

3. Dieting can greatly increase your risk for an eating disorder

“Any attempt to control or restrict food intake that is not medically necessary can lead to disordered eating,” share Kirstin Sandreuter and Mariah Stout, co-presidents of Body Positive Cornell. “Many people think that a temporary diet plan, cleanse or food group elimination will be beneficial for their health, but it is good to be mindful of how these efforts can drive the creation of rigid rules, shame around eating and an unhealthy relationship with food.”

Lisa Fix-Griffin, MS, LCPC, works at Bradley University Health Services, and has been a therapist thirty years (twenty of which were at a hospital-based eating disorders program) also agrees that diet culture can exacerbate predispositions toward developing eating disorders:

“A person may have a predisposition [to developing an eating disorder], but if they do not attempt to alter their body but reducing their food intake, the risk of developing the disorder is very low," Fix-Griffin said. "Some stats suggest dieting increases the chance by 4 times. This is why most in the field do not support Weight Watcher's new pitch to adolescents.”

4. Recovery doesn’t happen overnight

Because a lot of people don’t understand the seriousness of eating disorders, they may believe that if a person suffering “just eats”, all of the problems will go away. Elizabeth Hoang, a junior at UCLA and co-director of Body Image Task Force, said that recovery from eating disorders is not really that simple.

“I wish that people understood more about the recovery process,” she said. “Recovery is a difficult process and is different for everyone. A lot of people think that eating disorders can be treated over a couple of nights and that there is one plan that fits for all, but recovery can take many years or even reoccur later in life, and so patience as well as support from family and friends can all really make a difference and help with the recovery process.”

Even when a person begins eating properly and stops engaging in destructive behaviors, he or she might still experience a lot of guilt and anxiety surrounding food and body image, which means that recovery hasn’t yet been fully reached.

5. You can suffer from a serious eating disorder without losing weight

There is a stigma around eating disorders that may cause people only to recognize them in those who have lost a lot of weight. This is extremely dangerous, because those who suffer from eating disorders but haven’t lost weight might be hesitant to reach out for help.

Sarah Goldstein, a senior at Northwestern University and one of the co-founders of the student organization Cats With Confidence, encourages us to be aware of this danger: “You can have a person of any gender who, despite being 300 pounds, has an eating disorder because they starve themselves desperately trying to lose weight. Society doesn't recognize the latter as someone in distress, but rather commends the person for their ‘incredible’ weight loss. With greater awareness, everyone who is struggling can learn that their struggles are valid and to be taken seriously, and the hope is that everyone learns that it's okay to seek treatment regardless of what they look like."

“You don't have to be ‘sick enough’ in order to receive help—in fact there is no ‘sick enough.’ You can have an eating disorder without looking a certain way,” Andrea Cheatle, a secondary English education major and president of Penn State University’s student organization Free to Be Me added. “I think that a lot of people think they don't deserve help until they reach a certain weight, I know I felt that way, but that's not true. Not only do you always deserve to get help, but you can still damage your body without being underweight.”

Kirstin and Mariah from Body Positive Cornell echo this sentiment: “Whenever thoughts and obsessions about food occupy a significant portion of a person's head space, or interfere with any other aspect of their lives, they should seek support. We all have amazing things to do in the world, and food should be fuel, not a setback on our journeys!"

6. Eating disorders are serious mental health issues triggered by a combination of different factors

It’s important to remember that just because a person diets chronically, or lost a lot of weight, or body shames himself or herself, he or she does not necessarily have an eating disorder.

“[Eating disorders] are serious mental illnesses. Like all psychiatric disorders, there are genetic, psychological and environmental aspects which precipitate their onset. Much of this is beyond a person's direct control,” Fix-Griffin explains.

Holly from REDO has experienced the importance of understanding this: ““Eating disorders are not the fault of any person or any one thing. It is a mix of biological and environmental factors. My parents thought they contributed to my eating disorder; they felt like they failed me. This is absolutely not true.”

7. There is still a lot we don’t know

Mental health is an area that even the top researchers in the world still have a lot to learn about. Chances are, when your grandparents or even parents were our age, they hadn’t even heard of mental health.

“We don't pretend to know everything about eating disorders. That's the beauty of being on a college campus with constant access to educational opportunities. Advocacy does not mean that we know everything; it means that we're willing to learn what's out there and that we're ready to seek what's not,” said Mary from Active Minds at Elms College.

Chances are you know someone, or will know someone, who is suffering from an eating disorder. The best thing you can do is listen and learn, instead of pretending to understand what they’re going through.

As NEDAwareness Week comes to an end, let’s make sure that we don’t leave eating disorder awareness in the past. Eating disorders are a national health crisis, so let’s get real and treat them like it.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you are not alone and you can contact the National Eating Disorder's Association (NEDA) Helpline at (800) 931-2237 or the Eating Recovery Center (eatingrecoverycenter.com) to speak with a Masters-level clinician.