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College life and the threat of eating disorders

“I’m fat.”

There should really be a drinking game for those words. If you had to drink every time you heard someone call themselves fat, you’d be drunk before you read my article this morning. Or for the number of times you catch someone checking themselves out in the reflective surface of a mirror, door or window as you walk across campus.

Body image is important to college students. But what begins as a little harmless vanity begets a community of college students who are deeply insecure in their own bodies. And this insecurity can have potentially fatal consequences if it leads to body image disorders and eating disorders.

On a campus where every reflective surface is a mirror, we have to ask ourselves: Is our obsession with our bodies hurting us?

College campuses contain all the right triggers for eating disorders: stress, social pressure and, most of all, freedom. You’re away from your parents; no one is checking up on you; and, unless you’re an upper-classman, your meal plan probably consists of a twice-a-day buffet and vending machine food. It’s the first time in your life when your diet is completely under your control. There are a lot of freedoms that come with being in college. But the freedom of college life is what makes it a breeding ground for eating disorders.

“Anna” is an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts who prefers to remain anonymous. She has struggled with anorexia and bulimia since she was 12-years-old. She’s been through numerous treatment programs ranging from out-patient programs to in-patient residential treatment at a hospital in Boston.

“It started when I was 12,” Anna said. “Like, around seventh grade. It wasn’t triggered by anything specific, nothing traumatic anyway. I went on a diet and it just sort of went out of control.”

The pressure to be thin starts young, and comes from all kinds of sources. A lot of that pressure has been attributed to the kinds of images seen in the media: air-brushed faces, abnormally thin models and actresses, diet ads on every channel and billboard. All of these media images affect how we see ourselves, and what we define as beautiful. But the strongest pressure, according to Anna, often comes from within the eating-disordered person’s own community.

“The biggest influence was probably my sisters, and my peers,” she says. “And an internal pressure. I don’t remember idolizing people on TV and being like, I want to look like that person.”

While it makes sense to think that advertising companies and unhealthy media images are responsible for the rise in eating disorders in the last 20 years, the media is only a part of a much bigger picture. Often, the person hurting you the most is not the half-naked size zero draped across the cover of a cigarette ad. Often, the person hurting you the most is the one sitting next to you in the cafeteria.

“You hear girls talking about their bodies all the time. About themselves, but about other girls too,” Anna said.  “I heard these girls talking the other day about their friend as if she were a science project. It was like they were dissecting her, just picking apart everything that was wrong with her body.”

While the super-thin ideal of beauty may originate in the media, it is enforced by the community of girls who watch each other. Girls who comment on how much you eat, girls who call themselves fat to hear it contradicted, girls who mock each other because they are so desperately afraid of being undesirable themselves.

Boys are not excluded from this, either. There are one million men in the U.S. affected by an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, according to statistics provided by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). But eating disorders and body image disorders are a much larger problem within the female population.

According to NEDA, more than 10 million women in the U.S. have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, and more than half of teenage girls engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors. NEDA’s definition of unhealthy eating control behaviors includes fasting, smoking, vomiting and use of laxatives.

These statistics only represent reported cases of eating disorders: Many more go undiagnosed and untreated. NEDA estimates that only 30 percent of people with anorexia nervosa and six percent of people with bulimia nervosa receive mental health care. Many anorexics and bulimics are in denial that they have an eating disorder and will not seek treatment. Many more are afraid to “come out” about their eating disorders because of the stigma surrounding the disease and the lack of acceptance within the community.

“People will be sensitive to the issue when they know it’s an issue,” Anna said. “Like, if you tell them you have an eating disorder, most people will try to be sensitive about it. They won’t understand it, but they’ll try to respect it. But people will also make these offhand comments and jokes that can be offensive.”

If you think eating disorders are funny, consider this: Anorexia nervosa has the highest premature fatality rate of any mental illness, including depression.

“The long-term consequences are definitely a concern,” Anna said. “I don’t think there’s a cure for it, exactly. I don’t think there’s a cure for a lot of things. But you can definitely get better. It takes a long time, and a lot of work, but I think you can live free of the obsession.”

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, there is an eating disorders clinic available on campus through UMass Mental Health Services. Mental Health Services can be reached at (413) 545-2337 or at 127 Hills North in the Central Residential Area between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m  on Monday through Friday.

Rachel Dougherty is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at

2 Responses to “College life and the threat of eating disorders”
  1. Pac Man says:

    Good article, but don’t forget about Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder as well.

  2. Eating Recovery Center, an eating disorder center in Denver, just released research showing that the transition to college, with its inherent pressures and changes, can increase the likelihood of eating disorders in young adults. Go here for the complete report:

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