When a student approached Notre Dame psychology professor Alexandra Corning several years ago about writing a senior thesis on eating disorders, Corning said she knew very little about the topic.
Now, she conducts research about eating disorders and teaches an undergraduate course titled “Understanding Eating Disorders.” While diagnosable eating disorders are a major concern, Corning said she focuses on the large number of people who struggle with symptoms, but do not have a diagnosable disorder.
“Even when you’re struggling sub-clinically, you’re struggling,” Corning said. “Our campus, even if you looked around and discovered, yes, full-blown, diagnosable cases are rare … there’s lots of people who are struggling at a sub-clinical level.”
One in three college-aged women has disordered eating habits, although only nearly 10 percent have a full-fledged eating disorder, according the University Counseling Center and resources distributed on Notre Dame’s campus this week as part of Body Image and Eating Disorder Awareness Week, sponsored by the Gender Relations Center.
Statistics, however, are not always accurate because eating disorders and related symptoms are often underreported, according to Valerie Staples, staff clinician and coordinator of eating disorder services at the University Counseling Center.
Eating disorders and body image issues are prevalent for the college-aged population due to competition and comparison among students, Staples said.
“Even if students on campus think that they don’t know somebody with an eating disorder, it’s very likely they do,” she said. “We have a lot of members of our community who are really struggling and who are in a lot of physical and emotional pain.”
Corning said it is important for students to understand that they are not alone in facing symptoms of eating disorders. A study she did in 2006 found that a great number of female undergraduates at Notre Dame displayed these symptoms.
“Of the people who signed up for our study and were in it … 56.2 percent either had a diagnosable eating disorder or showed symptoms,” Corning said. “It means that if you think no one else is struggling, you’re wrong.”
While she said the study did not set out to find statistics in that area and was not an entirely random sample, the findings did show that eating disorder symptoms are frequent on campus.
There are three types of eating disorders, Corning said. They fall under the categories of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and not otherwise specified. Not all symptoms fit under these categories, and some fit under all of them. For example, Corning said over-exercising can be a symptom of anorexia, but also a form of purging after binge eating associated with bulimia.
Eating disorder symptoms are prevalent in both men and women in part because popular culture provides constant reminders of a thin ideal for women and a muscular ideal for men, Corning said.
“And [college students today] have grown up in a culture where there’s more bombardment of these images,” she said.
Staples said she finds the amount of student energy and participation in the event this week to be extremely encouraging. One of the most important aspects of Body Image and Eating Disorder Awareness Week is based on educating students about how they might help a friend with an eating disorder, she said.
Of all the students who came to the University Counseling Center last year, Staples said the Center’s annual report indicates that 10.3 percent reported eating concerns. Yet in addition to working with students who have eating disorders, Staples also meets with concerned friends.
“Every year, every semester, I have people calling me or coming in in groups to consult about a friend who they’re worried about,” Staples said. “When I’m consulting with them about how to help a friend, we spend a lot of time talking about not only what they can say to their friend, but also about what to expect.”
Students wanting to help a friend, Staples said, must address specific concerns about behaviors in a compassionate, nonjudgmental manner.
“It’s not about finding the perfect words,” she said. “I don’t have tips on how to make this an easy conversation, but I think there really isn’t a wrong way to tell someone you’re worried about them.”
While realizing the prevalence of disordered eating and the difficultly of confronting these issues can be discouraging, Staples said she finds hope in stories of recovery.
“I think that there’s, for some, a misconception that people can’t get better,” she said. “And if I didn’t see people get better, I don’t think I could keep doing this [job.] … It’s a long process of change, but people can overcome an eating disorder and live very long, full lives without this consuming them.”