Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Recovering from anorexia on a health-obsessed campus

By Kate Leddy

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(Courtesy of UMassAmherst/Flickr)

(Courtesy of UMassAmherst/Flickr)

Around this time last year, I was a newly moved-in freshman at UMass, both excited and apprehensive about being on my own in a brand new – and huge – place. I had happily chosen a school that happened to be ranked No. 9 on greatist.com’s “Healthiest Colleges” list, situated in a dorm building right near the three-story Recreation Center that boasted its healthy living programs as well as dozens of fitness classes. Hampshire Dining Commons was just a short walk away, and with small labels on each dish detailing the calorie, fat, protein, sodium and carbohydrate content, I could certainly know what I was choosing to put in my body.

The problem was that this borderline-obsessive devotion to health I was finding myself surrounded by was the very thing that had once led me into the eating disorder I was trying to recover from.

Seven months into recovery from anorexia nervosa, I was not the only one who saw the potential danger in moving away from a comforting home, supportive family and friends to an entirely new location where I would begin as another new face living independently among students who didn’t know my past.

I recall my therapist at the time describing the situation like that of a recovering alcoholic taking up a bed in the local bar. The temptation to relapse was evident from day one. After all, I could be certain nobody was monitoring my behaviors – if anything, UMass seemed to be providing the very tools I needed to fuel an all-consuming focus on health.

In the first few weeks of college, I saw no hint of information about the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health on campus. Not a single teacher, student or administration member addressed the potential mental strain incoming freshmen especially may be having when moving to a new place.

Instead, this monster inside of me that I had once been so fervently trying to fight leered at the stickers on every vending machine that read “Calories count: think before you choose,” and I found no barrier to stop myself from slipping backwards into its grip with each trip to the Rec Center and each lap around the buffet circle at Hamp wondering what combination of calories from those little cards I could possibly allow myself to eat or whether I should just send my spotless plate to the dish return and walk out.

I had come too far in my recovery effort to ignore the damage I was doing to myself for long, though. Wobbling back onto my feet without any real hand to steady myself felt nearly impossible at first. UMass did not make it easy to ask for help.

When I worked up the courage to accept that I couldn’t recover alone and made a call to set up an appointment with the nutritionist at University Health Services, I was immediately put on hold. I sat trembling from head to toe for nearly 20 minutes as I waited, all the while trying to ignore the thoughts that I should just hang up, that I was making a mistake and this was a sign.

When I finally found where CCPH was located and came to the office, my eyes lit up upon a poster about group therapy sessions for eating disorder recovery. Yet, when I called the office later for more information, I was told the group would not be running in the fall because not enough people had shown interest.

I thought to myself, “If it is said that 1 in 5 women suffer from an eating disorder, and I am on a campus of more than 27,000 students, how is it possible that there weren’t enough people seeking recovery to form this group?”

The reason is a sad truth: Universities such as UMass and the majority of its students still remain largely ignorant to the other world of improper eating. The fight against the obesity epidemic has become so well-known, and yet so often misguided, that our generation is constantly bombarded with messages to just cut calories and focus on exercise.

This, combined with the impossible beauty standards our society upholds, creates an environment where healthy eating and exercise is praised even when it is escalating into levels of obsession. Fat-shaming becomes a tactic against obesity rates that instills a fear of weight gain in individuals that may be already at a healthy set-point, and normalizes self-loathing as a motivation for weight loss.

As a new friend sitting with me at the dining hall grimaced at the remnants of her slice of chocolate cake and declared she was “disgusting” for having it, I silently congratulated myself on completing a full dinner and daydreamed of the day I’d feel comfortable eating chocolate cake. I received compliments over having the “awesome dedication” to exhaust myself at the gym once, sometimes twice, a day every day, and silently begged for someone to tell me instead to slow down, to ask me if I was okay.

Yet nobody could have known, all influences of our “health”-obsessed environment blindsiding what little education most people have on eating disorders. My illness and recovery were kept hidden, swept under the rug along with hundreds of other women who would much sooner be judged as arrogant for admiring their own looks than abnormal for hating them.

If the topic had been as socially acceptable to talk about and as prominently displayed as the fitness-promoting and calorie-count signs around campus, then I would have been able to see I was not alone and that recovery was still worth it long before I began speaking about my struggle at the end of my first semester.

For now, though, maybe that is our biggest weapon against eating disorders: speaking about it. If UMass is trying to promote healthy living for its students, it needs to ensure it is hearing all voices – not just physically unhealthy and overweight individuals, but mentally unhealthy individuals and those struggling with eating disorders as well. Strict dieting and over-exercising must not be normalized to support an illusion of health and fitness, and compulsive overeating (binge eating disorder) must not be dismissed as a shameful lack of self-control.

I know this now and I make sure my friends on campus know it. My voice is only one, but in fighting against an illness that affects over 30 million people in this country, I know it is not a cause I stand alone in. It simply needs more acknowledgement, more education and more acceptance in the struggle of recovery.

And perhaps sometimes, more slices of chocolate cake.

Kate Leddy is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]

7 Comments

7 Responses to “Recovering from anorexia on a health-obsessed campus”

  1. Andrew on September 16th, 2014 7:41 pm

    I think this definitely needed to be said. Coming from someone who doesn’t really have to worry about their weight, I don’t mean to be cocky, and also being a male, I’ve never fully understood this self loathing that a lot of females go through, and I’m sorry if that is too harsh of a term to use. I have played a sport almost every season of my life since elementary school and through high school, and if not, I was playing all day outside with my friends.When I came to college I became somewhat obsessive about my body but I think in a much healthier way than what many girls go through. I was thin, so I lifted weights a lot during my freshman and sophomore year to gain more muscle and I saw decent results. I never called myself “disgusting” for being skinny or eating a lot. I always ate as much as I possibly could, usually four meals a day and to extreme fullness at dinner time because that is what my own body needed. But I knew that as long as I worked out my hardest, I could eat ,essentially, whatever I wanted, after my meat and vegetables and fruit, of course. This brings me to the problem you discussed with common female body image: the university claims to be promoting “health” when it really is just funneling a lot of girls into an obsession with an undersized, skinny body, which is not healthy for a lot of girls, as you highlighted in your article. Although, you make a good point that this university agenda is out to cut down obesity, which is a good thing, it needs a more streamlined approach to promote overall health. If the university, or magazines and other forms of media showed strong, athletic, fit women, instead of these very slender, engineered bodies of “models”, I think a lot more girls would be focused on just exercising as hard as they could and knowing that they can eat as much as their body needs to feel full and yet still be in good healthy shape. On a side note, I think women and men alike would be better off not idolizing models for their bodies so much, but that’s another topic. But, there certainly is more pressure on women not to overeat as oppose to men where, in my experience, it is almost encouraged, because the body image that men typically try to fill is a calorie guzzling hulk. As far as obesity is concerned, I think there lies a huge issue for most kids and I am scared for them. A lot of these kids were too sedentary as children. These poor exercise habits carried into their young adulthoods and now they are ALMOST at a point of no return. These kids need to follow strict diets and strict workout regiments to become healthy. Now, this may have been a bit all over the place, but I will bring it together. What I am trying to say, and what you were trying to say, is that being healthy is different for each person but as long as you are consistently active, and eat balanced, healthy meals until you are full. Very simple yet is is very construed these days.I know I have reiterated what you said in your article but I believe strongly that these points need to be driven into the heads of America’s youth. I admire your bravery for coming out in an article like this and I hope that a lot of other girls follow in your path. Different bodies cannot be compared! Thank you.

  2. Nate on September 17th, 2014 9:24 am

    I’d like to thank you for writing this article. I have two female friends (one of whom is a UMass alum) who have struggled with this condition for several years, who also felt that awareness and true understanding of what constitutes an eating disorder was lacking on both college campuses and just within life in general. So many people suffer in silence, feeling ashamed to get help and that is unacceptable. More knowledge about anorexia nervosa, bulimia and overexercise needs to come to public light, so that those fighting this unique, difficult battle know that it’s OK the courage to ask for help when they need it the most.

  3. Frida on September 17th, 2014 3:37 pm

    It was really brave of you to write this article. It’s so important for people to speak up about their struggles since it only takes one brave individual to spark something in an entire community that lets its members know they’re not alone. You’re completely right and so awesome in saying that body policing and impossible physical standards hurt not only those who are overweight by making them feel wrong about the bodies they have, but also those who might have a predisposition to these sots of mental illnesses. Self-hatred can happen to anyone and it’s great to remind everyone that just because someone is skinny, doesn’t mean they’re okay — physically or mentally. We should all encourage each other to be happy and healthy, not to be infallible exercise machines that hate themselves for enjoying a piece of cake.
    You’re amazing, I hope you stay strong on your path to recovery <3

  4. Alicia on September 17th, 2014 6:45 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I graduated in 2002 and on-campus living made it easier to withdraw into restrictive behavior. Concerned with keeping their operation costs down, my school had fairly limited dining hall hours which made it even easier to “miss” meals or “forget” to eat without drawing a lot of attention. They also had strict limitations about removing food from the dining room or getting meals to go–making skipping easier for someone who struggled with food issues, especially eating in public. Sometimes schools can be well meaning with health initiatives but accidentally creating an environment that helps those with eating disorders hide in plain sight. It’s also important to understand that not everyone with an ED looks thin, is counting calories or is influenced by celebrities or models.

  5. Linda on September 18th, 2014 5:28 pm

    Thank you.

  6. Morgan on September 24th, 2014 4:13 pm

    This was a really, really well-written article. As someone that has been in recovery/recovered for almost two years, I can really relate to the struggle with UMass dining and the general atmosphere on the campus. UMass’s focus on health, although well-intentioned, certainly makes it easy to fall back into obsessive/restrictive behavior. Perhaps it would be beneficial to talk to the University Counseling Center about making ED-supportive posters? I also agree that it is really important for the ED group to re-form, and will be sure to tell the UCC of its importance. Thank you so much for sharing

  7. Julie Montal on October 6th, 2014 5:29 am

    Thank you for saying that Universities should be more mindful of their roles in encouraging young people to be healthy…it is not only (but includes) the health services, food services, coaches and professors: how they help (or not) in forming behaviors, values, minds and BODIES as role models and what they actually promote. Recognizing the importance of mental instability: developing adults of tomorrow. Very well written.

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