So last week was National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. As I scrolled through my Instagram feed, I was shocked and touched by the number of people who shared their deeply personal battles with these illnesses. I knew eating disorders were especially prevalent in high school and college-aged women, but I couldn’t believe there were so many girls (and boys) out there that I had never known were struggling.
This year, the theme for NEDA Week was “It’s time to talk about it.” Even though I’ve never personally struggled with an eating disorder, I know enough girls who have that I decided to do something about it; it’s time to talk about it, right?! Cue: blog post.
Since I’m writing this as an “outsider” looking in, I wanted to make sure I had the facts straight. With the help of sorority sisters, classmates, and fellow bloggers, I was able to put together this post where they have shared some of their most powerful and personal details about their battles with ED. To everyone who contributed: I can’t thank you enough for your vulnerability and willingness to share your journey with me and these readers. You are braver than and stronger than you know!
(Heads up: All of my “interviewees” are fellow college students like me, with the exception of Theresa, Geneveive, and Laury. These women all have their own wonderful blogs that you should definitely check out!)
With all the misconceptions out there, it’s time we stop the stigma around eating disorders. In our media-crazed and appearance-obsessed world, it’s hard not to be misinformed a lot of the time about issues like this. So without further ado, here are 10 things college students need to know about eating disorders.
- Eating disorders are more common than you think.
Accurate statistics are hard to pinpoint, but some sources say 15% of women between the ages of 17-24 will experience an eating disorder. Among college students, those rates may be as high as 20% for women and 7% for men. If numbers aren’t your thing, take my friends’ words for it.
Lauren: What many fail to realize is that you can have an eating disorder without being dangerously thin. You might see someone walking down the street who looks healthy, but in reality, they could be struggling more than anyone.
Olivia: Even throughout this week I have learned of SO many more people that have struggled with eating disorder than I would have ever expected. Going through recovery I even learned my own mom struggled at one point.
Laury: I felt so alone when I was in high school and struggling. I started my blog in my twenties and spoke about recovery only to have an outpouring of friends or classmates from my past reach out to me sharing their struggles.
- They don’t discriminate. Against gender, race, socioeconomic status, or anything else for that matter.
That last statistic about the percentage of college men affected by eating disorders: yes, you read that right. These illnesses affect men, women, middle schoolers, adults, people from all different races and sexual orientations and economic standings, you get the point.
Lauren: When I was struggling, I would sometimes look up stories of others who had struggled, or who continue to struggle. Through doing this I realized that there is such a wide variety of people who struggle, and it can affect anyone for very different reasons.
Jordan: I had so many different people in treatment with me over the years. Boys, girls, a 70-year-old woman, me as a 14-year-old girl, people receiving treatment through various insurance plans – it’s not just white, rich girls.
Melaney: I think that people often associate eating disorders as starting with overweight people, and although that can sometimes be true, it often is accompanied by a lot of other factors in a person’s life that manifests itself in the form of an eating disorder.
- Eating disorders are not a choice.
Everyone had a lot to say about this one, and even though I agree, I can’t empathize or say I fully understand since I’m not speaking from personal experience. So, I’ll let their responses do the talking.
Emma: My eating disorder stemmed from what was first a bet with my friend to see who could stay vegan the longest. It came out of nowhere. I didn’t even know I was struggling until my parents brought me to the hospital 7 months later.
Lauren: When I was beginning recovery, sometimes my parents and sisters would be like “just eat more, it shouldn’t be that hard,” but in reality, this was the hardest thing to do at this time. It wasn’t as simple as me waking up one day and just deciding not to eat, it is a whole mental battle that takes over your life.
Olivia: An eating disorder doesn’t come from “wanting to be skinny,” “wanting to look good,” or “wanting to look like models or celebrities.” I think there’s this preconceived notion from society that an eating disorder comes from “just going on a diet,” but it is a mental illness that affects both your body and mind.
Jordan: More often than you’d think, people have the audacity to say “Oh, I wish I was anorexic! I’d lose some weight!” or “I wish I had that self-control,” or the worst, “I mean, just eat something! Literally, anything!” It’s not something you do for fun. There’s no choosing when you start your eating disorder and when you decide to end it. It’s not a privileged illness.
- Anorexia and bulimia aren’t the only ones out there. These disorders occur on a spectrum.
Laury: I was in treatment with compulsive overeaters who shared the very same struggles with control that anorexics and bulimics did. There are even some food-related disorders do not have clinical names yet.
Jordan: You can have a combination of anorexia and bulimia, it isn’t necessarily one or the other.
Melaney: Disordered eating often gets boxed into these specific disorders when in fact there are so many patterns of eating that can be considered “disordered.” For example, I would consider obsessive calorie counting, burning off food with exercise, and an obsession with eating and working out in general to be disordered. A healthy body starts with a healthy mindset!
- There are more consequences to eating disorders than weight loss or gain.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. While some of that can be attributed to the physical consequences, these disorders are also strongly associated with depression and/or suicidal thoughts and intentions.
Emma: They are not glamorous. Anorexia, for example, goes hand in hand with severe depression, anxiety, low heart rate, organ failure, bone density loss, and hair loss, just to name a few.
Lauren: I now realize that I wasted almost a year and a half of college isolating myself in my room, not going out because of the fear of calories or skipping out on group dinners because I didn’t want to eat in front of other people. It made me much more depressed, and I think it really changed my personality. Now, being back to myself, I realize how much I separated myself socially because of my eating disorder.
Theresa: The anxiety I had around food manifested itself into other areas of my life too. I got anxiety about everything – germs in particular. It’s quite scary how it can spiral out of control like that.
Genevieve: Bulimia has a whole host of consequences as well, such as irregular heartbeats, electrolyte imbalances, inflammation of the esophagus, tooth decay, irregular bowel moments, constipation, and ulcers.
- You can’t determine whether someone has an ED based on their size or stature.
Though we often think of people with eating disorders as being rail-thin and fragile, that is certainly not always the case. For example, people with bulimia often fluctuate around an average weight for their height or may gravitate a bit towards the heavier side. Also, people with binge-eating disorder might appear like they are just overweight, but in reality, are facing internal feelings of guilt and lack of self-control. Since these disorders occur on a spectrum, you cannot simply look at someone and attempt to pinpoint their eating disorder or assume they have one.
Lauren: Even though I didn’t want to admit it, I began suffering from an eating disorder before I lost the majority of the weight. At the beginning, I was going to the gym every morning and running 5 miles and then only eating a banana for breakfast. But, at the time, if someone looked at me they would not have known that I was struggling because I was still at a normal weight.
Jordan: Since some people are naturally thicker, curvier, etc., for them to be thinner is just as unhealthy and dangerous. Everyone has a different “set point,” which is where their body weight naturally wants to fall and functions at its best. BMI charts that say what is considered a “healthy” weight for every height? Those are bull****. Everyone’s natural healthy weight is different.
- Though our culture plays a role in the development of eating disorders, talk amongst peers can be just as harmful.
Another statistic for you: in this survey, it was reported that “91% of female college students have attempted to control their weight through dieting.” Living in a sorority house, all too often I hear girls talk about how they need to exercise out of guilt for what they ate or all the drinks they consumed over the weekend.
“Ugh, I HAVE to go to the gym. I haven’t worked out in three days and we have the date party next week.” “Spring break is coming up really soon… I’m just going with my family but I should really stop eating junk food.” “I’m only having salad for lunch because I just went on a run and I feel like it would be a waste if I ate this grilled cheese.”
When I hear girls talk like this around each other, I can’t help but think maybe I should have done a tougher workout that day, maybe I shouldn’t indulge in a late-night snack, or maybe I should be more concerned about what I’ll look like in my formal dress. By beating ourselves up, we just might accidentally be doing the same thing to other women.
Lauren: While I know it was not the cause of my eating disorder, hearing girls say, “Oh no I can’t eat that I didn’t work out today” or “I need to go to the gym I drank so much last night and then ate pizza” assured me that what I was doing was okay.
Olivia: People don’t realize the things they are saying or doing are extremely unhealthy. All foods were made for a reason; that reason is to fuel our bodies in some specific way. Putting labels on foods as “good” or “bad” creates a sense of guilt for eating certain foods. Everything, including dessert, is good in moderation.
Laury: It seemed like growing up that all the women around me were obsessed with calories, dieting, and weight. Very often women put their bodies down, which made me look poorly at my body, questioning how I should look.
Jordan: There is such a need to be skinny among people and it’s really dangerous. Girls compliment each other when they’ve lost weight, regardless of when it’s gone too far. I truly don’t think there’s ever a need to be discussing weight and diets with friends. That’s not fun.
- If you are struggling, you are NOT alone.
Like many of these women already pointed out, they discovered through treatment and recovery that there were so many others struggling alongside them. If there is one thing you get out of this article, PLEASE let this be it.
Emma: If you KNOW someone who is struggling you NEED to speak up. Those struggling are not themselves, they usually are too deep in ED thoughts to ask for help.
Lauren: When I was struggling, all I needed was to talk to someone who understood, but I was embarrassed and didn’t know who to turn to. Having a group on campus or even having every sorority on campus provide the names of girls to reach out to would be so helpful.
Olivia: And it is NOT a bad thing to ask for help. Asking for help and admitting you have a problem can be one of the hardest things you will EVER do, but I promise you it will be worth it in the long run when you discover there is so much more to live for.
Jordan: Never alone. Period. So many helpful resources, so many people struggling, so many people who WON’T encourage you or try to find a diet with you. Look for someone who wants to help and listen, not offer dangerous advice.
- There are tons of free resources you can utilize on your campus and online.
Mental health resources are free of charge on every college campus I’m aware of, so please look into them if you think you or a friend may need help. Online, you can get privately screened here through the National Eating Disorders Association website if you or someone you care about might be struggling with disordered eating. If you just need a little body positivity, check out the @beauty_redefined Instagram account or the Food Psych podcast by Christy Harrison.
Lauren: It is important for people that are struggling to know that there is nothing wrong with what is happening to them, and that it is possible to recover.
Melaney: University Health Services employs dietitians and counselors for mental health and counseling for these types of issues. I would highly suggest going to check them out if you think your relationship with food is becoming a burden on your life.
- The stigma and shame surrounding these disorders needs to stop.
Shame is the number one thing that turns people away from seeking help from these deadly illnesses. Mental illnesses in general are more prevalent than we realize, so it’s time to end the stigma and encourage people to reach out when they need it.
Emma: They are treated in a hospital just like any other life-threatening disease. The social stigma labeling as “glamorous” or a “choice” needs to end.
Jordan: You don’t shame someone and talk behind their back if they have diabetes, so why this? You don’t tell people with cancer to just “get rid of it!” so why this? You don’t tell someone who’s thin and sickly from chemo that you’re jealous of their weight loss. So why this?
Lauren: The stigma and shame are what made me refuse to admit that I had a problem and made me so embarrassed.
Olivia: I shouldn’t be scared or ashamed to tell my story or open up to someone about it because of the way society has portrayed this illness.
Laury: Never be afraid to seek help and never ever feel ashamed. Do NOT let your eating disorder define you. You are not your eating disorder and it takes so much strength to admit you have a problem and to then seek help.
I hope this article informed you a bit on eating disorders and exposed to some of the misconceptions we have floating around in society about them. Thank you for reading so we can TALK ABOUT IT and take a step towards ending the stigma.