The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



Eating disorders affect ND students

Claire Heininger | Thursday, October 2, 2003

Deep in the bowels of the Rockne Memorial, three girls exchange evil glances as they all eye the same treadmill, their sneakered feet tapping impatiently as they await the prized chance for a workout.

Across campus at North Dining Hall, wide-eyed freshmen pile pasta and chicken fingers high on their trays and top it all off with a cone of chocolate soft-serve to go.

From one extreme to the other, a large number of Notre Dame students have a problem with eating – and it is becoming apparent that a smaller but far scarier number have let their fears spiral out of control into full-fledged eating disorders.

The number of female students on college campuses across the country who have an officially reported medical eating disorder stands at a conservative 15 percent; however, a more dangerous statistic reflects those who have attempted to control their weight through dieting, says Valerie Staples, eating disorder specialist at the University Counseling Center. “Dieting is the number-one risk factor for development of an eating disorder, and depending on the survey you examine, the percentage of college-age women who try to diet can be as high as 91 percent,” she said.

In an atmosphere as competitive as Notre Dame’s, the number of students who feel the pressure of perfectionism can be even higher. Single-sex dorms, a largely homogenous population and the high percentage of ex-varsity high school athletes on campus have also been named as factors that can push even a slightly body-conscious Notre Dame student over the edge, Staples said.

While hesitant to label Notre Dame’s environment as more conducive to abusive dieting and exercising than that of any other campus, Staples said that the stresses of university life can lead to many different underlying self-esteem issues that are then manifested in a student’s body image.

“It’s all about identity, self-confidence, empowerment,” Staples said. “An eating disorder is something much more comprehensive than just the food aspect.”

Kelly Shaffer, one of seven student leaders of the eating disorders student support group A Life Uncommon, agreed.

“An eating disorder is just a symptom of a bigger confidence problem,” she said. “It’s really a reaction to societal pressures forcing us to strive for bodily perfection.”

Following this philosophy, both Health Services and A Life Uncommon have designed strategies that incorporate more than just better nutrition into their programs for students who suffer from eating disorders. Although Health Services does ask every student – no matter how far the disorder has progressed, from five years to five weeks – to see a physician, their focus is more geared toward mental therapy, both for individuals and for groups, Staples said.

“Our group approach tries to give the student an accurate mirror of the outside world. We want to help them realize all of the quality characteristics about themselves that have nothing to do with their bodies,” she said. “It is a very difficult step to take when an individual first comes forward, but these things are treatable. Talking in groups to people who are at other stages of recovery helps them to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Shaffer said that A Life Uncommon does not claim to be a professionally trained counseling group, but that it also promises to offer this type of nonthreatening community healing.

“When we’re all honest with each other, we start to understand that it’s not just about fixing the behaviors … a healthy physical pattern doesn’t ensure that those feelings won’t come back,” she said.

Kristi Peterson, another of the group’s student leaders, emphasized the spiritual side of the meetings. “You don’t even necessarily have to have an eating disorder to come,” she said. “We just want girls on campus to see that they’re not alone – there are people supporting you. We try to promote girls being united in their opinions of their bodies instead of going against each other in such a competitive way.”

While usually associated with female competition, eating disorders’ effects on men should not be overlooked, Staples pointed out.

“We need to do a better job of talking about this as an inclusive problem,” she said. “Men’s body issues can exist in a totally different way – the pressure to use supplements and exercise to beef up their appearance. If males are brave enough to begin the dialogue, we should be sensitive to their concerns as well.”

Staples said she was encouraged by recent steps toward increasing awareness and more open discussion of eating disorders at Notre Dame. “This is why we’re bringing Jessica Weiner in,” she said. “Let’s talk about it. You’re not going to get judged or kicked out of school. We will welcome people because there is hope.”