Improving the conversation about body image issues
Three out of 20 women at Ithaca College have had or currently have a diagnosed eating disorder, according to research conducted on Ithaca College’s campus last spring. That puts the college population right in the middle of the average rate: 10 to 20 percent, according to the National Eating Disorders Association’s annual collegiate survey.
Why is this important?
Because eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and there is still little official research on the topic.
Kathleen MacDonald, a D.C.-based eating disorder expert who lobbies for federal legislation pertaining to eating disorders, said this rate hasn’t been comprehensively updated in years.
“One of the problems is that we don’t have current research,” MacDonald said. “And part of why I’m so passionate about the work I do on Capitol Hill is that it will advocate for more research dollars so we can actually study these things rather have this big enigmatic [question of] ‘Is there a problem? Isn’t there a problem?’”
In a survey of 100 people conducted on campus last year:
• 13 students identified as being diagnosed with an eating disorder.
• All 13 of these students were women.
• Two of these 13 students were varsity athletes.
These three data points reveal many things. Part of what it’s missing is data about men. There’s a common misperception that eating disorders only affect women. However, the NEDA reports 4 to 10 percent of collegiate men also suffer from eating disorders. In a 1995 study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, it was revealed that men were far less likely to seek help for eating disorders, which could contribute to eating disorders being stigmatized as a “women’s issue.”
Meanwhile, feedback from athletes on this campus coincided with previous research published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise: athletes in aesthetic sports — those that emphasize appearance, such as diving or gymnastics — more frequently struggle with eating disorders than other athletes.
Bridget*, a freshman at the college, said she has had issues with purging and binge eating since seventh grade, but never sought treatment or met official bulimia nervosa criteria. Although she no longer purges, she said the thoughts of her disordered mind persist. She said participating in a dance company for nine years contributed to her image-fueled mentality.
“Some of the girls in dance had similar issues to mine,” Bridget said. “It was also harder because I was one of the bigger girls in the company and so that kind of added a little more pressure with being onstage.”
However, some respondents said they were helped by participation on their athletic team.
One varsity student athlete who responded to the survey said she had been diagnosed with anorexia and she never felt pressured to lose weight because of being on her team, and that her team was usually created a supportive environment.
“I love my team, and they’re helping me get through this, including my coach,” she said.
However, athletic participation or exercise can also negatively affect those struggling with an eating disorder.
Abbie*, a junior at the college who is recovering from EDNOS (Eating disorder not otherwise specified), said she avoided eating normally her freshman year by compulsively studying and exercising instead.
“[My disorder] didn’t affect academics very much because I mostly just focused on those and tried to get really good grades, and I just avoided eating,” Abbie said. “I didn’t really consider it an eating disorder because I’m a perfectionist, so it was part of that mentality.”
Because of this emphasis on perfectionism, people might not notice that a friend or family member has an eating disorder — the person with the disorder often still performs very well in school and other activities.
However, Caroline*, who is recovering from anorexia, said her disorder can still cause struggles in school.
“Now, it’s sometimes hard because how do you explain to the teacher, ‘I didn’t do the homework last night because I was having a mental breakdown?’” she said.
How can the college better address these issues?
Survey respondents recommended increasing the visibility of our counseling services, providing trigger warnings for discussion of body image and eating disorders in classes, and having more residence hall programs on eating disorders.
The results of the spring survey were shared with Ithaca College’s Hammond Health Center in May 2014 and the director said she would include information about campus services for those living with or affected by eating disorders in her freshman seminar presentations.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of sources. Campus research was conducted by the writer in April 2014.
Alexa Salvato is a sophomore journalism major. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.