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Conference to address eating disorders issues

Marcela Berrios | Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Saturday Night Live may poke fun at a suspiciously thin Nicole Richie – and everywhere, viewers enjoy the jokes – but in reality the subject of anorexia and other eating disorders is no laughing matter.

That is precisely why Student Body President Lizzi Shappell and the Student Senate Gender Issues Committee, who are taking this matter very seriously, are organizing a three-day conference in February that will address eating disorders at Notre Dame.

Valerie Staples, Coordinator for Eating Disorder Services at the University Counseling Center, says that up to 17 percent, or roughly 150 of all students who go in seeking guidance are afflicted with eating concerns such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and muscular dysmorphia.

These figures do not take into account those students who deal with eating disorders in private and don’t go to the UCC for help.

Junior Ashley Weiss, chair of the Gender Issue Committee, said one of the conference’s most important objectives is to create awareness among administrators and faculty members who seem reluctant to address an issue that affects so many students from both sexes.

“As a transfer student, I know I was surprised with the way eating disorders and body images disorders are present among the Notre Dame student population,” Weiss said. “I’m used to finding vomit on the toilets in my dorm, or seeing girls wake up obsessively at 6 am to go running.”

Senior Kevin Gimber, Co-chair of the Gender Issues Committee, knows that female students aren’t the only ones struggling.

“Guys have their own issues too,” he said. “I’ve seen guys get together to measure their biceps, and modify their eating habits and go to the gym at all hours of the day to get bigger. They may not be prime candidates for anorexia or bulimia, but they certainly have other kinds of body image disorders that require attention.”

Weiss and Gimber said the first thing that needs to happen to really tackle these problems is the identification of the circumstances and the environment that leads to the development of eating disorders in college students.

Shappell said the conference will take a comprehensive outlook towards eating disorders, by taking “both an academic and [a] practical approach, addressing first what creates an environment conducive to eating disorders from a sociological, biological and psychological perspective.”

The organizers said they hope bringing these conditions to light will encourage the University to dedicate more resources to the research of eating disorders among college students.

Another key organizer of the event, senior Allison Wishon, is currently in Washington D.C. at a national panel about eating disorders in preparation for this winter’s conference.

“I am going to D.C. to determine who the leaders in the field of eating disorder research are, and what they feel the ‘hot topics’ in this research are, and to make connections with individuals at other universities who are doing the same work,” Wishon said.

The speakers for the conference in February are yet to be determined, but organizers are narrowing down the list of candidates, which include renowned medical experts, published authors and psychologists from different backgrounds, including Harvard Medical School.

“It’s important for everybody to get out of the mindset that eating disorders are just about weight and body images,” Staples said. “We tend to trivialize eating disorders and view them as superficial, but for the people who have them they are actually coping mechanisms to deal with the pressures of life.”

Freshman Bridget Mahoney saw this happen to one of her male friends.

Mahoney said her friend had recently faced romantic problems, and in the last year he lost roughly 50 pounds.

“He’s over six feet tall and his wrists are smaller than mine. It’s really scary,” she said. “The worst thing is that he’s in complete denial about being bulimic – even when it has gotten to the point where he doesn’t need to gag himself to throw up because he does it so often it’s normal for him now.”

Besides heartaches, Staples also said students in highly competitive universities like Notre Dame often have difficulty learning how to balance academics, athletics and their social lives – and they may sometimes turn to unhealthy eating habits to release some of the stress they are experiencing.

Pennsylvania State University and Brigham Young University already sponsor seminars and events that address these issues, but Shappell said this would be first time undergraduate students take the initiative to work on a conference of this kind.