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Sophomore sheds light on anorexia

Becky Hogan | Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sophomore Tara Gilbride sat nervously in front of her computer for five minutes before she finally hit the “submit” button, sending her Viewpoint letter, “Get the Help You Need,” which would announce to her friends and campus community that she had an eating disorder.

Her Feb. 27 Letter to the Editor may have been the perfect start to student government’s “Live As You Are: 2008 Health and Body Image Conference” taking place this week in observance of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

“I know a lot of people who are struggling with eating disorders and think this is something they have to hide,” Gilbride, who battles anorexia, said. “I feel comfortable letting [people] on campus know who don’t feel comfortable that [an eating disorders is] not a shameful thing to be struggling with.”

This week’s Health and Body Image Conference is essential to bringing awareness of eating disorders and educating the campus community about them, she said.

“People need to be aware and be in dialogue about issues like this,” Gilbride said.

She also said this week’s events are a reminder that the University cares about tackling eating disorders and recognizes that they are a problem on campus.

“It’s definitely not unique to Notre Dame,” she said. “It’s our general culture that cases the problem.”

Although she was apprehensive about the reactions she would receive after submitting her letter, Gilbride said she had a great support system of family and friends behind her that encouraged her to reach out to others in the campus community who may also struggle with eating disorders.

“There has been an amazing response,” she said. “What surprises me that it’s guys and girls who have been contacting me.”

Gilbride said she has received e-mails from both students and alumni thanking her for raising awareness about the issue of eating disorders.

“I was hoping for a positive response from the Notre Dame family, but I didn’t expect such a large response. I thought I would get an e-mail or two, but the amount of people who responded surpassed my expectations,” Gilbride said. “I’ve had four e-mails from students on campus saying they are struggling with an eating disorder or have a family member or friend struggling with one.”

Gilbride said writing the letter has even helped create dialogue among her own circle of friends.

“It has also opened up an avenue for people I thought I knew really well – friends of mine who I had no idea that were struggling [have reached out to me],” she said.

After submitting her letter, Gilbride said she has encountered two different reactions now that people are aware of her eating disorder.

“Either people are extremely supportive or really uncomfortable about it. Even some of my best friends have said nothing to me and don’t acknowledge it,” she said. “All the responses have either been positive or people are not comfortable with it, which is fine with because it’s a sensitive topic.”

For Gilbride, one of the greatest challenges she faces in battling anorexia is the misconceptions that others have of the disease.

“It’s … a mental health issue. To me, it’s a disease like any other and it’s not something anyone chooses to have, so it shouldn’t be treated as something shameful,” Gilbride said.

She also said social influences can make it very difficult to deal with eating disorders.

“Images from media portray eating disorders as something shameful.  Celebrities go into rehab in private … and people think you should be able to control it,” Gilbride said. “If you look at me you probably couldn’t tell.  People can hide it really well. It’s not just the literally stick-thin girls who have eating disorders.”

Gilbride said these misconceptions pose serious health risks because many people don’t understand how grave eating disorders can be.

“I think the biggest misconception is that they are not harmful … you can die from them and they are damaging to your body,” she said. “Eating disorders can kill you and people don’t take it seriously as they should.”

Gilbride said her eating disorder was something that she had been dealing with at some level for many years and that it will continue to be an on-going struggle throughout her life.

“I was runner in high school and I got injured, so I wasn’t doing physical activity but I was watching other people do physical activity,” she said. “This was coupled with coming to college and the pressures any college freshman faces.”

Gilbride said Notre Dame Health Services and the University Counseling Center have been essential in helping her get her eating disorder under control by providing her with counselors, physicians and nutritionists.

“Based on my experience, [the University has] enough resources, it’s just that not enough people are using them,” Gilbride said. “The resources are there and the University would bend over backwards to help students.”