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It’s Time to Talk About Eating Disorders and College Students

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

TW: Depictions of eating disorders and disordered eating 

I was in fourth grade the first time I cried about my body. I ate all of my Halloween candy and hid the wrappers in my desk drawer so that my parents wouldn’t find them. About a week later my mom opened my desk drawer to see it filled with candy wrappers. I was immediately filled with guilt and started to cry. I remember looking at the candy wrappers and then  at myself in the mirror and just thinkingfat.” Over the years it would get worse. I didn’t wear a pair of shorts for all of fifth grade. The summer between sixth and seventh grades I decided that I needed to go on a diet. No twelve-year-old needs to go on a diet. I would cry in dressing rooms in stores. I would have breakdowns getting ready for school in the morning because I thought that my clothes made me look fat.

 In high school, I would routinely decide that I was going on a diet. I had hundreds of “lose weight fast” schemes ready on my phone. When that didn’t work, I decided that I was going to make myself throw up after my family went to sleep. I never actually ended up throwing up, just coughing a lot. Sometimes I would decide that I wasn’t going to eat the next day. I genuinely believed that my body was ugly, and nothing anyone said could convince me otherwise. 

But I don’t have an eating disorder, right?

When I left for college, it got out of control. I was proud of myself if I barely ate that day. I thought that it was perfectly fine to only have coffee until dinner. I worked out every single day. I wouldn’t eat all day and then would work out until I almost passed out. If my body wasn’t in pain, I wasn’t working out hard enough. I made excuses. I’m just so busy that I don’t have time to eat today. I don’t eat because I’m not hungry. I’m just not eating so that when we go out later, the alcohol will hit me more. I totally forgot to eat today. I started to crave the feeling of being hungry. It would calm me down and get to the point where the feeling made me smile. And before I even realized it, I had lost control. 

However, the truth is, I wasn’t the only one. It is estimated that 25% of college men and 32% of women develop an eating disorder, most of whom never seek treatment. Around 40% of college freshmen come in with some sort of disordered eating or potentially dangerous relationships with food. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines eating disorders as serious illnesses that are characterized by severe disturbances in people’s eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions including preoccupation with food, body weight and shape. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes and weights. 

Why is it so common to develop an eating disorder in college? Unfortunately, eating disorders have become normalized in college culture. Not eating before going out to “have more fun” or to look thinner in an outfit is normal—just like it’s normal to not eat to cancel out the calories consumed the night before, or casually say something like, “I’ve only had an iced coffee today.” Gaining weight is villainized through terms like the “Freshman 15” or the “Sorority 40.” In reality, gaining weight during a major life change is completely normal. While these may seem minor, they can have a major impact on someone who is at risk of an eating disorder or someone already struggling with one. 

I interviewed students at Saint Louis University who have experienced an eating disorder while in college. I spoke to Julia Carter, a sophomore. I asked her to describe how being in college affected her eating disorder.

“Plain and simple, being in college while having an eating disorder, or experiencing disordered eating of any sort, poor body image, body dysmorphia etcetera., is incredibly difficult. You walk around campus trying to juggle the typical college struggles on top of the eating disorder, and you hear things like, ‘Ew I cannot get the freshman 15,’ ‘OMG, do you know how many calories are in that?’ ‘Oh, I ‘pulled trig’ every night this week.’ Comments like these are everywhere. To some, they don’t mean much, but for those who struggle with an eating disorder, these words have the power to set off explosions of thoughts in your head. Even when people knew about my eating disorder, I still received comments about what Starbucks drink I decided to get, the number of times I went to the gym that week, how I don’t feel comfortable wearing certain things, and more messages about “pulling trig.” How am I supposed to work on not judging myself when all of my peers seem to be? Sometimes it feels like the college environment is just food being labeled as good or bad, people judging you based on your workout and eating habits, and an untalked-about pressure to dress a certain way when you go out. You may even want to participate in the trends but an eating disorder can take away all the joy associated with it. This feeling of disconnection, pain, and anxiety is not only difficult to process but also extremely untalked about.

When someone who is going through an eating disorder experiences this, it can feel so lonely. Eating disorders are very common, and unfortunately, there is a societal stigma that tells people not to talk about something so vulnerable with other people. Society teaches that mental health issues are better dealt with in silence rather than in solidarity and support. You may not know that the person sitting next to you in chemistry is fighting a similar battle and is also struggling with feelings of isolation and hopelessness. 

Having a community of those in eating disorder recovery in college provides a sense of support and company that is necessary to finding your healthy self and keeping you accountable to stay there. I recently started sharing more about my own struggle with an eating disorder on social media, and the response I have received has shocked me. So many people on campus are desperate for someone to relate to, someone who understands how hard it is to fight this battle. There is a large community of incredibly strong young men and women here at SLU who struggle, or have struggled, with an eating disorder. To those of you who are struggling, know that you are not alone, and there are so many people (myself being first to volunteer) who are ready to support you in any way that you need. And, to those of you who are free from the grasp of an eating disorder, I hope that you can pause and think about the way you speak about food, exercise, and body standards. The change to create an environment of acceptance and support includes each and every one of you. Talk positively, be vulnerable and check in on your friends. The future doesn’t have to remain in the stigma.”

Responding to the same question, Jane*, a sophomore at Saint Louis University, responds:

“I think one way the college environment affects my eating disorder recovery negatively is that eating one meal a day and other disordered eating patterns are so normalized. For someone in recovery who is already struggling with the idea that they aren’t “really sick” or “sick enough” to seek help, these normalized disordered eating patterns in college settings are difficult and further add to thoughts of not feeling “sick enough” to seek help. When this feels so much like the standard, it makes recovery feel more overwhelming and makes it feel as if I am making my eating disorder up. While eating one meal a day is not good in any way, even if it is unintentional, there is such a difference between this being a latent choice or an active one. A lot of times people ask me if I ate today, and if I say yes, that’s an assumption that everything is fine, even though just eating “something” is not okay for anyone, and especially for individuals in recovery. It’s incredibly disheartening to open up to someone about having an eating disorder, and then have them tell you they forget to eat sometimes as well, or that they don’t eat three meals a day anyways. 

For me, the big difference of an eating disorder was not just about forgetting to eat or not getting hungry till a later time. It’s waking up with your head swimming with thoughts about what your body looks and feels like, and how you feel about this will determine how you eat for the day. It’s spending time walking around the grocery store and staring at menus because it all feels so overwhelming, and no matter what, your eating disorder yells at you. It’s planning every moment of every day around food. It’s exhausting. This is why I’m choosing recovery. I’m tired of my eating disorder; it’s a coping mechanism that no longer serves me, and instead has taken over my life and gone to places I said I would never let it get to. Recovery is a brave choice, and while it’s hard to make that choice every day, in the end I know it will be worth it.” 

If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, you are not alone. Please reach out to a mental health professional or someone you trust. 

National Eating Disorder Helpline:  (800) 931-2237

*Certain names have been changed to maintain the privacy of the interviewees 

Studying International Relations and Political Science at Saint Louis University. Avid feminist, reader, and Taylor Swift enthusiast "Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you"-Ruth Bader Ginsberg
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