The Normalization of Eating Disorder Culture in College Students
TW: Mention of eating disorders, disordered eating, diet culture
- “Her body makes me want to go to an outpatient clinic. How am I supposed to eat in front of him!?”
There have been more mornings than not where my friends and I share a laugh over the fact that all we have had for breakfast is our regular Dunkin’s coffee order, contraband disposable vapes, and whatever assignment we had to finish before our 9:20 a.m. lecture. Then, the marathon begins. We embark on the daily performance of studying, class, emails, and extracurricular activities. Extra bonus if your study drugs also double as an appetite suppressant (fact check, they do). By the time we all return home, we open the cabinet in despair to find packets of ramen, cereal, and some stale chips. At this point, we typically decide to eat sleep for dinner.
To compensate for the lack of food on Monday, maybe Tuesday we’ll make it a point to head to the dining hall first thing in the morning. A plethora of food choices exist, which allows us to forget about our depressing pantries for a moment. Colleges will advertise their cornucopia of dining options, ranging from pot roast resembling the one your mother makes, or the mac and cheese bar that students will leave class early to get in line for. Farm to table! Locally sourced! Vegan and gluten-free! Open until 2 a.m. for pizza and fries! What colleges do not talk about, however, is the insecurity you feel as you walk through the crowded dining hall with a plate of food, with eyes scanning you up and down. Despite the number of times colleges and universities spend advertising their dining programs, there is no emphasis on the ramifications of all these choices; the deep-rooted effects of all-you-can-eat for a meal swipe.
College is a time of great uncertainty. You find yourself asking existential questions about where you are headed in life and what is meant for you. Most of the time, you are stepping into a completely new world with no safety net, which is the perfect storm for increased anxiety, lower self-esteem, and increased self-criticism. In an effort to control the unknown, eating disorders and disordered eating can develop as a response. The thought here is, “if I cannot control my grade on this assignment, maybe I can control my portions to feel better about myself in a different way.”
It is no secret that young girls grow up picking themselves apart. With the standards of beauty so toxic, the ideals so unattainable, we are forced to navigate growing pains by molding ourselves to be something other than ourselves. When being skinny is the trend, but you were a size twelve before you were twelve, you find ways to make your insecurities easier to swallow. Oftentimes this comes in the form of over-exercising, under-eating, and a medium iced caramel latte as your self-proclaimed most important meal of the day. When someone talks of “having an eating disorder”, we might conjure an image of someone making themselves throw up or measuring the size of their wrists and waists. This is a more “conventional” notion of what it means to have an eating disorder. In so doing, we neglect more covert forms of negative behaviors. If we write off behaviors such as compulsive calorie counting and daily weigh-ins as maintaining one’s health, we become comfortable in disregarding the harm it causes us. In the discomfort of reality, the depression one feels if they miss a 12-3-30 on the treadmill is all-consuming. So is the need to increase the frequency of said treadmill-induced torture to compensate for a Thanksgiving meal. This is a sign of Anorexia Athletica, a psychological disorder with real, long-lasting consequences. In the discomfort of reality, the consistent body checking in the mirror is not just to make sure that your shirt is tucked in or your hair looks just right, but rather an obsession over the uncontrollable, known as Body Dysmorphic Disorder. We praise these things. We practice these things. It is ritualistic. It is life for us.
- “I am my mother’s daughter. I grew up picking myself apart in skin-tight leotards and looking forward to low-calorie snacks”
When we, as women, come of age in this context, we rarely learn anything different. We carry these behaviors on our backs as we venture into adulthood from adolescence and fall into harmful behaviors and consign ourselves to starvation. The worst part of it is that we are always fully cognizant of this fact yet enable each other to maintain this lifestyle. I will admit, I am the first one to scold my friends when they do not eat, or harshly criticize their bodies, but I also do not hold myself to the same standards. I go home and adjust the skin of my hips in the mirror.
This pattern of behavior is a shared experience among college students, both male and female. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, it is estimated that between 10% and 20% of women and 4% to 10% of men in college suffer from some type of eating disorder. In addition, 40% of students know somebody with an eating disorder or symptoms of disordered eating. The statistics are even more striking for gender minority students: they are two to four times more likely to exhibit eating disorder symptoms than their cisgender peers, and 16% of transgender students are diagnosed with an eating disorder.
We live in a society where there is a perpetual state of work to be done, and people to impress. Outside of that little seems to matter. We make sure that we are always booked and busy, and any semblance of rest time or self-care is often plagued by guilt and asking ourselves, “What do I need to get done today?” The answer to this question is never “I need to have breakfast” or “I need to fuel my body to get through the day”. We do not listen to our bodies, but rather ignore our most basic needs for the sake of convenience, insecurity, and realizing that you can get more drunk on a Friday night if you skip lunch and opt for a “meal replacement” granola bar.
In addition to the school-related norms that come with being a student, there are also cultural norms that revolve around aesthetics and appearances rooted in putting on a performance for all those consuming that media. Forms of escapism from our school lives are just as harmful as the school lives themselves, for we are left with few safe spaces to process what we feel and how we feel it absent of outside influences. Social media platforms such as Instagram and Tik Tok have become places we all go when we have a free second to sit on the couch or lay in bed at the end of the night. Although they are meant to be a distraction, and we are meant to enjoy the content we consume, it is a very real manifestation of the things that cause us the most harm. Recent U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings featured a former Facebook employee, who stated that Facebook’s products drove young people to develop eating disorders, more specifically how Instagram perpetuates this increase.
- “I started doing this thing where I blend celery, apple cider vinegar, and lime juice together and I think so far, it’s working because I look skinnier. Thank God.”
Influencers that pay their bills by selling green tea powders meant to kick start your metabolism, and girls post their “guaranteed to help you lose 20 pounds in a month!” workouts in $85 biker shorts. This is something so out of reach, so far removed from real feelings and lived experiences, but has come to shape the only ways we are allowed to perceive ourselves. This is taken as gospel, and we are willing to do whatever it takes to be a follower of this religion at the expense of our worth.
We exist in this environment because we are told that is how it is supposed to be. Going to college means you get up, go to class, go to work, build your resume with clubs, and Thursday through Saturday feel the crippling pressure to slap on a pair of jeans and take a photo for your Instagram. If you opt for staying in on your couch, this manufactured “FOMO” (fear of missing out): the boogeyman that plagues you with a unique form of isolation. You are too burnt out to go out, but not quite satisfied with your own company. Furthermore, we exist in a capitalist society, and fall victim to an economic system that says your purpose is to be a means to an end. This “go-go-go” mentality our culture has adopted does not leave room for taking care of the self, and when you grow up learning that your body exists for someone else to perceive, you struggle to learn how to nourish yourself in a healthy and holistic way.
- “Literally every time I get dressed in something even just a little bit tight, I cry.”
Women have different relationships with the systems in which we function, for we have had to carve out our own spaces in places not meant to hold us. The types of pants I wear to hide my stomach I would not have been able to wear until at least 1950. The vote I cast to ensure my bodily autonomy has been an option for barely a century. That is why our pay is lower, but the standards are higher. That is why the body-positivity movement of the 21st century needs a wake-up call. Yes, there has been a reckoning with our societal standards: models on runways are wearing double-digit dress sizes, and there are more girls that look like me on my social media pages. However, this is simply a band-aid on the collective trauma young girls have from watching their mothers on Weights Watchers and seeing models without an ounce of body fat in our formative pre-teen years. The movement needs to move away from perpetuating aesthetics rooted in the male gaze, and this idea that meal-prepping and spin classes will solve our woes. The way that I see it, as a participant in this culture, this takes a lot more self-discipline than what it would take to complete a workout or wear something I normally would not be comfortable in (I was never a fan of the way that my arms looked in strapless tops).
So how do we fix this? How do we break the cycle of normalizing harmful behaviors, unhealthy practices, and unrealistic expectations? How can we escape the all-consuming nature of feeling the need to fix ourselves? There is no easy answer, especially when we are told what our way of being in the world must be. Women are subjected to a unique type of scrutiny, this quiet judgment of their appearance and behavior. We cannot be too much, but we are very easily not enough. We take back our power, but in a way that also perpetuates the attitudes we are trying to escape. The criticism we impose on ourselves is rooted in a culture that sees women not for who they are, but what they are. We are supposed to be these delicate, soft, gentle beings, with just enough sex appeal to find a partner and become a mother, but not too much sex appeal that we can have a taste of what liberation is. We are now at an inflection point, existing somewhere between a degree of overt respect and covert scrutiny rooted in these antiquated views. It takes deep inward reflection, and requires us, as women, to ask ourselves, what is liberating us and what is confining us? One of the things confining us in whatever-number-wave of feminism we are currently experiencing is this subconscious desire to create habits we convince ourselves are healthy.
In the latter half of my coming of age, I can confidently say that the type of media I have consumed has become more body-positive and food-positive. This does not mean that an entire generation of young women can have an immediate change of heart and change of pace. Many of us do not realize that the ways in which we are relating to our bodies, our food, and our workout regimen are toxic. It also does not change the fact that nobody is eating and everybody thinks it is okay. In a world of unattainable physical forms and the omnipresent desire to attain them, we must remember that we have each other, and the shared struggle we have can allow us to grow together and grow from it. We have to remind ourselves that it is not normal to feel nauseous, sick, and empty, but rather full, happy, and nourished…mind, body, and soul.
Jessica Taddeo, PAC Intern