Well, the storm that prevented my presenting on the panel as described in A Meteorological Change of Plans has moved out to sea–not without causing some serious ruckus. But another strong one is moving in right now, rerouting regular daily trajectories, thus providing me another opportunity to curl up and explore the thorny business of eating disorders on college campuses.
Eating disorders are very complicated–and at their crux, are not about food. They have long been, and continue to be, the cornerstone of study for many a scientist and mental health clinician, in terms of the identification of their etiologies and appropriate treatment. Underlying biological genetic-based factors seem to seed the predisposition for the development of one of these conditions that take root by substituting out healthy development and replacing it with one which has a laser-like focus on the control of body weight and shape–and the feeding behaviors that determine such. While advances are being made, these are hard nuts to crack from a mechanistic standpoint.
However, this should not mean that we ignore the evidence that socio-cultural and psycho-social variables also play a causal, and not merely triggering role in eating disorders, and thus should be considered as potent avenues of prevention. And while each and every person exists in relationship to the social and cultural environments with which they interact, college campuses constitute a unique microcosm providing a unique breeding ground for the germination of these disorders. (Today, I discovered the term ‘culture-reactive’ which I think is relevant to this issue.)
I worked at a small liberal arts, predominantly white, self-contained campus in a non-urban community. While there, I would remind my students that this 4-year college experience was just a stage they were going through. It is temporary and somewhat illusionary. Even working there only part-time, I could get sucked into seeing life through a campus-view lens and would have to remind myself that this was not ‘the real world’.
Within this world, everyone is–well, young, with all the usual archetypes that youth is associated with. Like some mythical island, it seems like all the inhabitants possess beauty, vigor, vitality–and unbridled brilliance and talent. Each attribute is defined by the normative cultural standard (including thinness) established by no fault of one’s own. Such concentrated energy is pulsating, exhilarating, intoxicating–as well as deceiving, and potentially health diminishing or downright dangerous. Here, often impossible standards present themselves as expectations that should be assumed with ease–forcing any self-perceived failure or deviation from the norm to greatly magnify.
The maintenance or pursuit of this idealized persona and its requisite body weight and shape are challenged on college campuses by a few particulars. Firstly, there are the potent triggers that come from living day-by-day, night-by-night in close proximity to only one’s peers. At this vulnerable developmental stage there is much peer pressure, exposure to all types of media–including unregulated body-focused content, vocalized body shaming of self and others, unending body comparison opportunities, and a multitude of ways to feel “different than”.
Then, there are the academic, social (and athletic) pressures that college students have and the hungers such pressures activate. The non-stop studying, paper writing, exam-taking (and sports training)–and attendant lack of sleep, make for long days and extra hungry brains and bodies. These hungers may be physical, “emotional” or stress-related. But even stress-related hunger is physiologically driven. This hunger is powerful and real and involves late-night eating associated with studying or socializing. Stir this together with the stress of high personal standards, perfectionism, and anxiety and you have all that contribute to uncontrolled feeding impulses, or to advancing control behaviors and starvation.
The college eating experience is also an exception. Many colleges now market their dining venues and meal plans to lure students their way. Access to a college dining hall is like being on a never-ending cruise. Loads of offerings served from different specialty sections available from early morning to late into the evening. Standard meal plans may limit access to three meals a day, while premium ones allow unlimited visits. Many plans also allow for use at other campus food venues.
Being exposed to so much food with no limits, and having to make so many choices at every meal, can be very overwhelming with various responses. Eating (or not eating) amid the clamor of hundreds of other students also makes for challenging circumstances. Enticements also seem to be everywhere on campus. Various clubs and campus activities promise candy, pizza, or doughnuts in exchange for attendance–all within walking distance. Food, its embrace or avoidance, becomes a constant obsession.
On the flip side, students living on or off-campus without a meal plan often have difficulty accessing food or preparing meals. This precipitates and perpetuates other unhealthy feeding behaviors. Students in these settings can isolate themselves more easily, and can both yield to or hide their behaviors more–but students on campus can do so as well.
Finally, I might add the lack of parental/familial supports and/or constraints; heightened attention on ‘healthy’ foods; and increased alcohol or drug use behaviors are additional contributors to the development, unleashing or exacerbation of eating disorders in the college setting. Oh, maybe I will also include easy unlimited access to an indoor gym as another risk factor.
Given the high prevalence of such disorders on campuses, I will assume that most colleges have charged themselves with developing or strengthening approaches to care–though perhaps with continued difficulty. But, it has also been ten years since I worked on campus. Is there new information or have there been shifts in paradigms that have infiltrated and influenced changed consciousness and constructive activity on campuses? Is the explosion of people sharing photos of thinning bodies on social media exacerbating the problem or are movements like Body Positive finally exposing and mitigating this insidious epidemic of body-hating? I suspect the former and am aware that men and certain minority groups are becoming increasingly affected.
Still, I believe something is changing and that we can begin to shapeshift our perceptions of beauty. And, I believe the collective wisdom of dedicated activists and this current generation of emerging and young adults are going to demand and provide the solutions. They have already witnessed enough in too many ways. The statistics are staggering, sickening and sobering.
My humble little suggestions for colleges (and every place) include the following: create Body Shame Free Campuses; further media literacy as a prevention tool; include and support the parents/families of college-age students with eating disorders and provide resources; stop the demonizing of all dietary fats as agents of weight gain, and appreciate their vital importance in maintaining body functions; and, educate and inform all campus personnel about eating disorders and maintain trained staff to help students.
And, I strongly invite you to read the article, A Generation of Shrinking Girls by Laurie Penny, that my dear friend Chris just happened to send me this morning, that defines Eating Disorders as a social crisis and political issue–and explains why we really must care.
What might you add?
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Most Sincerely Yours, Elyn
My Plate Expression
I hope someday to look back on this time in our history and only read about the curious phenomenon of anorexia and bulimia to be touched by it, not have to witness its destruction and ruin on the bodies and faces I pass on the street.
Excerpted from individuals’ stories of recovery from the book, The Secret Language of Eating Disorders by Peggy Claude-Pierre.