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Experts discuss eating disorders at ND

Katie Peralta | Friday, March 14, 2008

As part of the weeklong “Live as You Are” Health and Body Image Conference, two Notre Dame specialists discussed eating disorders and body image on campus in the University Counseling Center’s portion of the symposium Thursday in McKenna Hall.

Valerie Staples, a counselor and coordinator for Eating Disorder Services at the University Counseling Center (UCC), and Mindy Wallpy, a doctoral intern at the UCC, addressed campus body issue issues as well as services that the UCC provides to help students.

“What situations here have contributed to your view of food, weight and body image?” asked Staples, who has worked at the UCC for about seven years.

The audience, organized into small groups, brainstormed a number of body image issues, from over exercising at Rolfs Sports Recreation Center to jokes about the characteristically “unattractive” Notre Dame women to the perfectionism environment on campus – all of which shed light on the body image issues, both in general and specific to Notre Dame.

Such situations, Staples said, are oftentimes hard to pinpoint, since activities such as eating healthily and exercising seem commonplace on such an intellectual university campus.

“I think in general, people just want to be healthy,” freshman Erin Rider said.

Pointing to University encouragement of healthy eating, Rider said, “I especially like the Nutrition at ND posters.”

Staples said that other food situations are more obvious on campus, such as eating concerns addressed by previously interviewed anonymous students, mentioning that some avoid eating dessert at the dining halls and avoid tailgates and dorms events that are bound to provide food.

“These kinds of events make students already concerned with body image even more nervous about food,” Staples said.

Wallpy discussed body image, which, she said, is not how a person really looks but rather how he or she perceives his or her own body. According to Wallpy, eating disorders distort this image as she described the three most common disorders – anorexia, bulimia nervosa and binge eating.

Wallaby emphasized the importance of focusing on positive body image when influences such as the media perpetuate negative body image stereotypes.

“When you’re getting ready, instead of saying, ‘Does this make me look fat?’ try ‘How great do I look in this?'”

The two presenters pointed to statistics that verify the sweeping eating disorder epidemic among college students.

“When I started working at the UCC [in 2001] I saw a few students with minor concerns about eating,” Staples said. “Over the years we have been seeing more and more students come in with such concerns.”

Staples said that the percentage of students coming to the UCC with eating concerns, however, has remained more or less constant – around 12 percent for the past two years. The percentage of students who come into the UCC for interpersonal concerns is about double this number, at around 23 percent.

Staples pointed to a number of reasons for students beginning college to come into the open about their eating concerns.

“It is difficult for students to adapt to new challenges at college,” Staples said.

She mentioned a number of new challenges that also exacerbate food issues for students, such as balancing social life and academics as well as learning to live with new eating habits and the large variety of food choices available at dining halls.

“The hard thing for students on campus is that there is not a big frame of reference,” Staples said, referring to the Notre Dame campus “bubble.”

“Pretty much everyone is around the same age and doing the same thing. People tend to look fairly similar,” she said.

Wallpy and Staples also discussed the number of services that the UCC provides students – beginning with an initial intake with a UCC counselor, then followed by individual or group therapy, nutritional consultation and later possibly psychiatric services.

“We have some great resources, it’s just up to the students to seek help,” said Staples, emphasizing the importance of talking to a friend who might be suffering from an eating disorder.

Staples said that students who come in after being approached by a friend about their eating concerns always are grateful.

“Even if speaking up about it [an eating concern] is awkward, it is always worth talking,” Staples said.