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Week calls attention to disorders

Dan Brombach | Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, are increasingly common in the United States, but they remain a highly stigmatized topic many feel uncomfortable addressing.

National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which takes place this week, hopes to change this trend. The event attempts to foster recognition of eating disorders not as choices but as serious, life-threatening illnesses, according to a press release on the event’s website.

As coordinator of Eating Disorder Services at Notre Dame, staff clinician Valerie Staples said many students struggle with how they eat and how they view their bodies.

“Eating concerns and body image concerns are very prevalent on this campus,” she said. “Last year, of students who came here to the counseling center, 9.8 percent reported eating concerns.”

Staples said the frequency of disordered eating among Notre Dame students can be attributed to the University’s intensely competitive atmosphere.

“We have a culture on our campus of ‘always do better, always improve,'” she said. “This reinforces people thinking about how they look in comparison to somebody else, about how much they eat and exercise in comparison to somebody else.”

Staples also said society and media play a role in creating pressures leading to eating disorders.

“It’s hard to pick up a magazine or watch any sort of a commercial nowadays that isn’t encouraging us to lose weight or to re-shape our bodies in some way, saying that we’ll be more happy or successful if we do,” she said. “While making physical improvements isn’t a bad thing, at what point do we need to appreciate other qualities in ourselves?”

Staples said eating disorders are underreported at Notre Dame not only because many students are afraid or embarrassed to ask for help, but also because many don’t realize they have a problem.

“For many individuals, they simply don’t recognize that what they’re doing is destructive and unhealthy,” Staples said. “Weight loss is considered a good thing, and so they think ‘the more the better.'”

Recognizing many of the primary misconceptions surrounding eating disorders, Staples said there is harm in labeling eating disorders as a woman’s problem.

“Certainly there are a greater percentage of women who are affected by eating disorders, but it would be a very narrow perspective to think about this as only a women’s issue,” she said. “If we look at eating disorders this way, we continue to make it more challenging for men to recognize its impact in their lives and to seek treatment.”

Staples said if you know somebody struggling with an eating disorder, the most important step in helping them is simply saying something to them.

“It’s very important that you let the person know that you’re concerned,” she said. “It may not necessarily be an easy conversation to have, but until the person recognizes that their problem is affecting other people they may continue to be comfortable with it.”

Ultimately, Staples said all members of the Notre Dame community have a responsibility to change the atmosphere on campus by taking the eating struggles of others into consideration in language and actions.

“As a community we should be mindful of our language in terms of how much we talk about weight, calories, exercise,” she said. “We all have a responsibility to make changes in our culture in that way.”