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Alex Frank / Spoon
Wellness

Eating Disorder Culture on College Campuses

Trigger warning: Mentions of E.D. 

“I’m not eating before going out, I need to get drunk faster.”

“All I’ve had today was an iced coffee.”

“I feel gross, I’m gonna go pull trig.” 

 Do these expressions sound familiar? If you live on a college campus, it’s probably true that you can envision a friend or acquaintance saying them right now. For many young women, the eating disorder culture at school goes unnoticed, as it is so deeply ingrained in the foundation of everyday life. 

Before we can understand why this philosophy is so normalized within young women, it is pivotal to distinguish what exactly eating disorder culture looks like. “If you have a heavy dose of anxiety and you’re in a social environment, and you’re constantly exposed to the thin body ideal, that’s a perfect storm convergence of factors that can drive a vulnerable individual into an eating disorder,” explains Dr. Douglas Bunnell, clinical director of the Monte Nido treatment center in New York. Eating disorder culture develops in multiple different forms in college; for example, bulimia and binge-eating habits can develop out of students’ attempts to restrict their diets when suddenly handed freedom to eat anything at almost any time of the day. The normalization of phrases like ‘the freshman fifteen’ puts extra pressure on students, especially young women, to keep their weight down when gains may simply be results of growing. Social ideals imposed by college culture can often trigger anorexia in students, and it isn’t abnormal for young girls on campuses to find themselves restricting themselves to as little as one meal a day, if any full meal at all. 

So let’s discuss the ways in which we, as college students, reinforce these disorders and create an unfriendly environment for both ourselves and our fellow peers suffering from EDs. 

The normalization of binge drinking and the culture surrounding it, in my opinion, is one of the largest issues that fosters an unhealthy relationships with our bodies. While drinking is a subjectively large part of the college experience, in many women there is an obsession around the calories consumed for every drink. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard “I’m getting a beer gut,” “it only has 100 calories,” or “I do shots so I don’t bloat,” I’d be able to pay off my tuition. Not to mention, as the calorie-counting obsession facilitates disorders like anorexia, the implications of binge drinking can also foster bulimic tendencies. 

As mentioned earlier, ‘pulling trig’ is a common phrase on any campus among both young men and women. For those that don’t know, to ‘pull the trigger’ or ‘pull trig’ is essentially slang for making yourself throw up. When students overdrink but their body has not naturally rejected their intake yet, they’ll often make themselves vomit to alleviate the effects of alcohol. The normalization of this practice is toxic to the college environment in itself, but few students know that the action, in itself, is a form of bulimia. Alcoholic bulimia, otherwise described as “eating during the day and then drinking to the point of purging so as not to consume any calories” has been labeled as dangerous by multiple psychologists and nutritionists alike due to the inherently dangerous side effects of depriving one’s body of key nutrients. 

Binge-drinking aside, the environment surrounding body image on many campuses is often competitive and this, too, can contribute to the normalization of eating disorder culture. In a new area where there’s an atmosphere of competition (especially surrounding hook-up culture), many students often feel pressured to look their best as they’re told that they are in ‘the prime of their life.’ 

This ideology can trigger a lack of desire to pursue traditional eating habits (i.e., the classic well-balanced, three-meal day). Disordered eating culture (irregular consumption of food, whether that be a meal early in the morning and one late at night, avoiding most food groups, or only snacking throughout the day) is known to become extremely prevalent on campuses as students enter college. We can see this emerge in many forms, the most common of which I hear on my own campus is the age-old excuse, “I’ve been too busy to eat today.” This in itself is problematic, but we see pressure and normalization of this dogma when other students begin to brag, per se, about irregular eating habits.

Every girl on a college campus has either said or heard a friend say how little they’ve eaten in a day in a bragging way. Most have even used the expression ‘morning skinny’ to depict the thin version they see of themselves upon waking up that many struggle to retain as the day goes on by – you guessed it – eating as little as possible. Even I, myself, have fallen into patterns like this, one’s where I’d find myself proudly proclaiming that all I’d had for dinner was a coffee or a small side salad. 

Eating disorders aren’t a joke, but we often misconstrue them to think they only exist in rail-thin, obviously ill women. The truth is, most women (and some men, too) on college campuses have severely struggled with body image, and the combination of binge drinking and social pressure (alongside the normalization of eating disorder culture) is the reason why. To fix this, we need to open a dialogue of the ways in which our actions and the actions of others can be harmful to our peers’ mental and physical health; only then can we create a truly welcoming environment free of toxic cultural norms. 

Sophomore at St. Lawrence University majoring in Government. Lover of oat milk, the outdoors, and 1970s comedies.
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