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TRIGGER WARNING: eating disorder/disordered eating


For one of my writing classes this semester, I was given the task to write a cultural criticism paper. In this type of paper, you have to pick a cultural ideal or topic of interest to you, and criticize it using relevant data, as well as personal experiences and opinions. Being a young woman on a college campus, I chose to discuss the importance of college campuses to provide resources and educational programming on disordered eating. I have experienced my fair share of struggles with disordered eating, and I know many women at Holy Cross have as well. Especially since it is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I felt that sharing this essay with a wider audience is incredibly important. I hope you enjoy.


If you had to ask me what my favorite holiday is, it is without a doubt Christmas. And no, it is not because of the presents, or the Michael Bublé blasting on my Amazon Echo Dot the morning of. Every year we celebrate the holiday at my Nonno and Nonna’s house, where they set up the grandest feast imaginable for my family. As soon as you walk into their single-story house in Yonkers, NY, you are overwhelmed by sweet and hearty smells coming from homemade Italian delicacies. As anyone would, I immediately run to the dining room table to grab a slice of Italian bread, the perfect appetizer to the multi-course meal ahead. Platters of different kinds of pasta, vegetables, meatballs, chicken, and more get placed on the table in a matter of minutes, yet they never seem to last that long. Even though I try every dish, my Nonna somehow finds a way to tease me about not eating enough. While her comments are always said with a whole-hearted laugh, hearing them for the past 20 years has greatly influenced my mentality towards food. Most people know the common saying that “food is fuel”, but in my family, it represents more. 


In Italian culture, food is a reason to gather, a reason to love, and a reason to rejoice. These ideals have been passed down from my grandparents to my mom, and now to me and my sister. I have always been told to see food as a source of joy, which caused me to eat what I want and what makes me happy. My parents bought the snacks that my sister and I enjoyed, never paying much mind to calorie counts or nutritional values. Of course, they made sure we ate well, but Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods were never the default destination on our food shopping trips. It had never occurred to me that my mentality towards food was not universal until I neared the end of my high school experience and attended college.


As 18-year-old me got excited to enter a new phase of my life filled with responsibility and independence, I was simultaneously made aware of new insecurities all college-women face. A new term had been thrown into my vocabulary: the “Freshman 15.” When I arrived on campus my freshman year, I convinced myself that this phenomenon would not apply to me, and that I would continue to fit in my high school clothes once the school year was over. But when I sat in the dining hall with my friends every day, I looked at the food options in fear and disgust. This term flashed like an alarm in my head any time I felt like treating myself to a cup of ice cream or placing an extra serving of french fries onto my plate. I ate the same foods in high school without a second thought, but now there was an unspoken pressure among me and my friends to avoid weight gain like the plague. 


To my dismay, I found out I had gained 12 pounds when I went to my physical over winter break. I remember walking out of the examination room that day and looking at myself in the mirror for ten minutes when I got home. My pants had fit a little tighter than before, which caused my high school size four to go up to a college size eight. This realization shocked me. How did this happen to me? I thought I was excluded from this. I worked so hard to avoid this. All semester I gathered the motivation to work out weekly, attempted to balance out the late-night snacking with healthier dinners, and sometimes replaced meals with cups of iced coffee. Most of my friends did the same, and I never blinked an eye. I viewed these behaviors as promoting balanced eating or weight maintenance. But that day, when I got home from the doctor’s office, I realized that I had developed symptoms of disordered eating throughout my first semester of college. An even sadder realization hit me moments after: almost all my friends fell victim to the same thing, and none of us knew, or even thought it was a problem.


It isn’t recent news that college students are at higher risk of developing eating disorders. Full-blown eating disorders typically start from the ages of 18-21 years old, mostly stemming from dieting habits like intermittent fasting or restrictive eating. As if is isn’t concerning enough, the switch to a college lifestyle significantly increases the likelihood of developing eating disorders. Many college students find themselves coping with the stressors of college through their eating, or the opposite. Even less surprising, women are disproportionately more susceptible to these trends. 17% of women on college campuses have an elevated risk for an eating disorder, and 30-50% of college women will partake in forms of binge eating or dieting in an attempt to control their weight.


The question I pose is this: if we know that almost 50% of women on college campuses partake in some form of disordered eating behavior, why is there nothing being done about it? Why did it take me an entire semester of college to realize that I had fallen victim to unhealthy eating patterns? 40% of incoming freshmen arrive at college with disordered eating habits, and if you only look at women, the number goes up to a whopping 80%. Why won’t colleges take accountability for their students’ mental and physical well-being? Instead of constantly lecturing students on alcohol and drug use, why not provide more education on healthy eating habits and providing health psychologists to assist students who might be struggling? Data on college students’ binge-drinking habits are almost equivalent to the statistics on college students struggling with disordered eating, yet we see no change in policy from college administrations. 


In February 2013, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) conducted a study called the “Collegiate Survey Project” where they investigated the programs and resources that American colleges and universities offered to students who were struggling with disordered eating. While most colleges offered some form of counseling or mental health services to their students, there was a significant gap in perceived need and available nutritional counseling for those suffering from eating disorders. There are little-to-no screening methods to help students identify their disorders, and even if there are, they are increasingly unavailable. This is unacceptable. 


Overtime, I have realized that disordered eating starts with small, unrecognizable moments. Sadly, this is why disordered eating has become so normalized, especially among college women. While eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia have distinct, diagnosable symptoms, disordered eating is very generalized. Its symptoms take place in everyday interactions and conversations, out in the open and incredibly hard to discern. 


Don’t believe me? Imagine this. It’s a Friday night, and you and your friends finally made it to the weekend after a long week of classes. You all decide to grab dinner before you get ready for the night ahead, and you hear your roommate say how she won’t be joining you. She “doesn’t want to look bloated in her new jeans tonight.” You and your friends shrug and say nothing. Later on, while your friends are swapping outfit ideas and putting on their makeup, another one of your friends stares at herself in the mirror and sighs, saying, “I look so fat in this dress, maybe I shouldn’t have eaten that slice of pizza for dinner.” You reassure her she looks great in her size 2 dress, but your comment doesn’t seem to stick. These are just two examples of how disordered eating and body image come to the forefront of conversations among college women. Most of the time, I wouldn’t think twice about these comments, as I have found myself making them too. It’s “typical girl talk,” some might say. To most, it’s no surprise that college women feel the need to express how uncomfortable they are with themselves, and this is the root issue as to why disordered eating is rarely discussed. It acts as a disguise that only those who have experienced it can detect, and colleges don’t see a need to shell out the funds to address it. 


The normalization of these conversations and comments emphasizes the idea that disordered eating stems from something deeper than personal insecurity. While our childhoods were spent educating ourselves on the horrors of childhood obesity, we now face the opposite problem. Our education systems have preached “fatphobia” to an entire generation of children. In addition to this term being promoted by school districts, it also doesn’t help that social media determines what’s “in” and what’s “out”, causing there to be a lot of pressure on women to keep up with the Kendall Jenner’s of the world. The average woman does not have the means to strictly eat organic or get their stretch marks laser removed. Yet, all social media tells us is that the skinny, tall, and hourglass trump the rest. And the reality is, that is enough to spark an entire generation of women to resort to disordered eating. 


Call me an aggressive feminist, but it’s not hard to see that the media feeds off misogyny, especially when body standards are the topic of interest. I remember scrolling through my Instagram feed and seeing a photo of the pop singer Billie Eilish that the paparazzi snagged while she was out grocery shopping. She looked like every average woman running errands, wearing a tank top, baggy sweatpants, and had her hair up in a messy bun. The media had a field day with that photo, tearing her outfit and body apart piece by piece. I had watched an interview with her once, saying how she always preferred to wear big, baggy clothes in public so that her body would not get judged. I was heartbroken when I saw the comments about her, because I’m sure she didn’t walk out of the house that day expecting to be torn apart by thousands of people for the way she looked. Tired. Frumpy. Fat. Let herself go. All describing a 19-year-old who went out to buy groceries. However, that same day, I saw photos of Zac Efron’s newly discovered dad-bod. The commentary looked incredibly different. Sexy. Hot. Mouth-Watering. WOW. Add in a couple of heart-eyed emojis and you get the gist. On top of women’s insecurities about their bodies, these media biases significantly contribute to the upward trend of disordered eating. And yet, we still find this subject to be avoided on college campuses, where the most vulnerable demographic group exists.


If it’s not clear enough already, a change needs to be made. Rather than elementary schools focusing on childhood obesity rates in the United States, let’s switch the focus to ensuring that all children have a healthy relationship with food. Not all children were as lucky as I was to have a family that prioritized three meals a day and encouraged me to eat the food that I liked. If it wasn’t for my Nonna constantly nagging me about eating until I was full, I probably would not have realized that I fell into disordered eating in college. As I discussed this topic with my friends while sitting in our college dorm, everyone mutually agreed that we all have some form of disordered eating, and we all agreed it was a problem. And yet, we see no changes, because there are no resources provided to us. The clock is ticking. A new generation of women is growing up thinking that having an unhealthy relationship with food is “on-trend” and normal. Why offer your extensive list of dining options when a significant portion of your student body will barely allow themselves one bite? And even though we can remind ourselves that one bite won’t kill us, only one bite potentially could.


Cassie Smith is a current Psychology major with a minor in Rhetoric & Composition at Holy Cross. When she'd not spending her time working for HerCampus, she's catching up with friends, graphic designing on her iPad, or perfectly organizing her Pinterest boards and Spotify playlists.
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