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Anorexia and College Students

Contributed Article by Mary Coombs, BS, Residential Counselor, New Dawn, Cara Eberhardt, BA, Residential Counselor, New Dawn, Victoria Green  MFT, Clinical Director, New Dawn

College can be both exciting and fear inducing. This is the period where many young people begin their lives separate from their families for the first time. However, it is important to be informed and aware of the risks many students face when coping with the inevitable stress of college. Some will turn to food and weight control as a way to manage the overwhelming emotions.

Anorexia can become especially problematic in college students. Anorexia is characterized by a refusal to maintain a healthy weight and severe restriction of food intake; it is the most common mental illness to result in death.

Portrait of people talking about Anorexia and College StudentsAs young people rapidly find themselves responsible for their own nutrition, coping with social pressure to be thin, adjusting to the academic rigors of college, and creating their own sense of identity, food and weight control can masquerade as stability for individuals desperately seeking steadiness. But the more prepared and aware students are for the stress that college and life inevitably bring, they can help safeguard themselves from devastating food, weight and body image issues.

Students in college are inundated with advertising, media messages, and misguided information about food, bodies, and health. Magazines targeted at college students showcase models with BMI’s well below healthy standards and extol the virtues of dieting.

This combined with the social pressures of living closely with peers who often endorse these messages [7] has resulted, not surprisingly, in many young students struggling with food and weight issues [9, 5, 4]. Often a mixture of emotions accompanies the transition to college, and those who struggle with loneliness or confusion may turn on their bodies in reaction, seeing “fat” as the cause of their problems and attempting to starve or purge as a way to “fix it.”

And who wouldn’t? Messages reinforcing fat phobia and thin worship are plastered on bus stops, in magazines, and on billboards. All too often, messages encouraging consuming and instant gratification accompany these images. The unfortunate side effect is that this obsession with food and weight rarely delivers the happiness promised in advertising, always leaving us hungry for more.

Life in college is fraught with stress. Tests, homework, late nights, living and working in new environments, constant change, establishing new friendships, and acclimating to the transition can all be sources of substantial stress. The need for coping and interpersonal skills, as well as stress tolerance, and excellent self-care become centerfold in maintaining individual wellness and psychological health.

However, education about how to adapt to stress and locate this support is all too often lacking, if not non-existent. Even more difficult to find is good and realistic information about food and physical health. It is easy to imagine how one might turn to food attempting to adapt to such a stressful environment [8, 3]. The impulse to have control through restriction, or build a wall through bingeing may seem appealing in a society that tells us to medicate our lives through our bodies.

Additionally, the competitive nature of university life could feasibly encourage notions of perfectionism and comparative thinking associated with eating disorders [12, 11, 1]. While striving to be the best hopefully allows them to reach their potential, competing with others and forming negative comparisons can distance individuals from their imperfections.  Is it any wonder that competitive dieting and what we call “fat-chat” (women bonding through food, weight and body image chats and focusing on others’ looks) become the way that students relate in our culture.

Competition and perfection, weight obsession, and poor coping skills through disordered eating take their toll on women of all ages, but those at the college level face an additional challenge: that of identity. College creates the space for individuals to experiment with who they are, what they want to do, and what it means to be an adult. It is typically a time of activated thought, critical thinking, challenging preconceived notions, freedom, and trial and error.

It makes sense, then, that during identify formation messages encouraging perfection, competition, and body image carry a particular emphasis [10].  Indeed, individuals with eating disorders tend to adapt their identities to those around them and may base their own identity on their body or the reactions of others, rather than their own sense of an overall self [6, 2].  How easy and devastating it is, then, to adopt the messages of weight obsession and perfectionism into one’s own person.

However, resources are available to young students who would like support in freeing themselves from the desperate cycle of deprivation and dissatisfaction. Making choices to surround your self with positive media can be an excellent way to combat distorted messages.

Additionally, many colleges and universities have student health services that can provide support and information about the risks of eating disorders and campus life. Many 12-step organizations have free support groups for those in the community, such as OA or ABA meetings. Outpatient therapy is another important resource for those who feel that their obsession with losing weight has taken over their lives.

The above programs can provide crucial support to college students struggling with these issues. However when those levels of eating disorder treatment are not enough to turn around an eating disorder it is important to look at higher levels of care. If an eating disorder is left untreated it often worsens and can become deadly. Some people require more structure and support to cope with the overwhelm of an eating disorder.

New Dawn has been in the forefront of eating disorders treatment for years providing multiple levels of care from intensive outpatient to day treatment to residential treatment at facilities throughout the San Francisco and Northern California areas. In addition, as part of New Dawn’s family of treatment programs we have a number of chemical dependency facilities so we can provide services for those struggling with both an eating disorder and drug/alcohol abuse.

Our staff is experienced and caring in treating food, weight and body image issues. The earlier in life you intervene in this devastating disorder the better your chances of moving forward with the life you want and deserve.
Article written March 10, 2012 

[1] – Abed, R. T. (1998). The sexual competition hypothesis for eating disorders.  British Journal Of Medical Psychology, 71(4), 525-547. doi:10.1111/j.2044- 8341.1998.tb01007.x

[2] – Behar, R. (2006). Gender identity and eating disorders: A psychosocial    perspective. In K. Yip, K. Yip (Eds.) , Psychology of gender identity: An international perspective (pp. 193-215). Hauppauge, NY US: Nova Science Publishers.

[3] – Beukes, M., Walker, S., & Esterhuyse, K. (2010). The role of coping responses in  the relationship between perceived stress and disordered eating in a cross-cultural sample of female university students. Stress & Health: Journal Of The  International Society For The Investigation Of Stress, 26(4), 280-291.  doi:10.1002/smi.1296

[4] – Calado, M., Lameiras, M., Sepulveda, A. R., Rodríguez, Y., & Carrera, M. V. (2010). The mass media exposure and disordered eating behaviours in Spanish secondary students. European Eating Disorders Review, 18(5), 417-427.

[5] – Engeln-Maddox, R. (2006). BUYING A BEAUTY STANDARD OR DREAMING OF A  NEW LIFE? EXPECTATIONS ASSOCIATED WITH MEDIA IDEALS. Psychology Of Women Quarterly, 30(3), 258-266. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2006.00294.x

[6] – Ison, J., & Kent, S. (2010). Social identity in eating disorders. European Eating Disorders Review, 18(6), 475-485. doi:10.1002/erv.1001

[7] – Kiyotaki, Y., & Yokoyama, K. (2006). Relationships of eating disturbances to alexithymia, need for social approval, and gender identity among Japanese  female undergraduate students. Personality And Individual Differences, 41(4), 609-618. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2006.02.013

[8] – Laessle, R. G., & Schulz, S. (2009). Stress-induced laboratory eating behavior in  obese women with binge eating disorder. International Journal Of Eating Disorders, 42(6), 505-510.

[9] – LEVINE, M. P., & MURNEN, S. K. (2009). “EVERYBODY KNOWS THAT MASS  MEDIA ARE/ARE NOT [pick one] A CAUSE OF EATING DISORDERS”: A  CRITICAL REVIEW OF EVIDENCE FOR A CAUSAL LINK BETWEEN MEDIA,    NEGATIVE BODY IMAGE, AND DISORDERED EATING IN FEMALES. Journal Of  Social & Clinical Psychology, 28(1), 9-42.

[10] – Little, J., & Hoskins, M. L. (2004). ‘It’s an Acceptable Identity’: Constructing ‘Girl’ at the Intersections of Health, Media, and Meaning-Making. In M. L.  Hoskins, S. Artz, M. L. Hoskins, S. Artz (Eds.) , Working relationally with girls: Complex lives/complex identities (pp. 75-93). New York, NY US: Haworth  Press.

[11] – Picard, C. L. (1999). The level of competition as a factor for the development of  eating disorders in female collegiate athletes. Journal Of Youth And  Adolescence, 28(5), 583-594. doi:10.1023/A:1021606710398

[12] – Serrao, H. F. (2010). Competitiveness and addictive behaviors: Exploring the role of competitiveness and gender in exercise dependence, disordered   eating, and alcohol use. Dissertation Abstracts International, 71.

Published Date: March 14, 2012
Last reviewed: By Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on 12 June 2012

Page last updated: June 12, 2012

Article Contributed by our Sponsor~ New Dawn Eating Disorder Recovery Center
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com, Help for Eating Disorders

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