We all know someone. More importantly, a lot of us have been that someone — someone who struggles or has struggled with an eating disorder.
According to the Oxford dictionary, eating disorders include a range of psychological disorders characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits. This can include bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa and orthorexia — the obsessive pursuit of a healthy diet often combined with excessive exercise.
These unhealthy habits can look like the person masked their skipped meal by an “inconvenient class schedule,” woke up a little too early to get to the gym for just the wrong reason, binged on snacks meant to last a full week, looked in the mirror a few minutes too long tearing apart their beautiful reflection — the list goes on.
If any of this strikes a chord for you — or if you’ve known or seen someone around you struggle with this — it’s likely because the prevalence of eating disorders in college has steadily increased over the past few years, rising to 32 percent of females and 25 percent of males, according to data from the National Eating Disorder Association.
Colleges are often a breeding ground for eating disorders due to high pressures to fit in, the idealization of thinness and societal emphasis on weight as the primary indicator of health. Combined with a busy schedule, increased stress and frequent comparison, there are many factors that make people much more vulnerable to eating disorders as a means of control.
This year, National Eating Disorder Awareness Week falls from Feb. 24 to March 1 and aims to bring attention to an epidemic that’s affecting millions, spanning all shapes, sizes, genders and races. Although eating disorders are often associated with females, many males also struggle with body image and eating disorders, and 16 percent of transgender college students have reported having an eating disorder.
NEDA’s slogan for 2020 is “Come As You Are” — acknowledging there is no one type of person who develops eating disorders while also encouraging those who either previously had or currently have an eating disorder to embrace where they are and who they are. All eating disorders are different and require different recovery processes, and where everyone is in their recoveries also differs. Universally, there are some things we can all do to be an ally to those with eating disorders.
To start, if you notice someone around you has a negative relationship with food — such as thinking about food constantly, thinking about body image or weight obsessively or feeling any kind of shame in relation to either of these categories — let that person know you care.
Remind those around you there is more to their life than their body or what they do or do not eat. Our culture is obsessed with discussing body image, weight, workouts and even what you ate for dinner last night. While these questions may not be asked with ill intentions, for those struggling with eating disorders, the impact can be broader and more triggering than you may think. This unhealthy obsession — thinking about food every waking moment of the day — is not a fun thing to go through, and I speak from experience here. Let’s work hard as a community to lift each other up about things that aren’t our diets or next workouts.
In a similar regard, avoid making accusations about other people’s diet, exercise or body. Telling someone suffering from an eating disorder to “just eat more” is not helpful. If the person felt they could do that, they would have already. An eating disorder is not a choice — it is both a mental health disorder and an addiction.
There's a difference between eating and moving because it feels good and because you are forcing yourself to. I know I never wanted to admit I had a problem, and that’s an issue in and of itself. The stigma behind eating disorders stretches far beyond a number on a scale or a reflection in a mirror. It, like depression or anxiety, is mental — a constant fight between mind and body.
As an ally, it can be difficult to watch someone you know go through these challenges, but taking the time to gain awareness and understand how you can help can make all the difference. You have the power to help those suffering feel seen and heard which can encourage them to reach out for help. Recovering in college is possible and worth it — because above all, we are all worth it.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out for help. The Elson Student Health Center has an eating disorders consultation and treatment team, which includes a number of trained nutritionists, psychotherapists, medical providers, and more. You can also text “NEDA” to 741741 or visit the National Eating Disorders Association website for additional resources.