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Campus culture can be culprit for disorders

Aaron Steiner | Thursday, February 8, 2007

Last year, when an anorexic Brazilian supermodel died weighing 88 pounds and designers announced the creation of size 00 clothes for the thinnest customers, body image debates raged through the style capitals of the world.

Notre Dame may be far removed from runways, but it hasn’t escaped the same problems that plague the fashion industry – and that’s the reason behind Student Senate’s “Eating Disorders and the Campus Culture” conference, which begins today.

Disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and muscular dysmorphia are as prevalent at Notre Dame as at other college campuses – if not more so – due to a variety of factors within the University’s environment, say University staff members and the conference’s student organizers.

Perfectionism and competition

Student body president Lizzi Shappell said students in any top-20 university like Notre Dame are ambitious in the classroom – and outside of it too.

“It’s a very competitive, perfectionist culture,” Shappell said. “I think that combined with the pressures that most women and men, even, experience from the media – those two things together make the college campus a high pressure environment for keeping up that aura of perfection.”

Notre Dame Food Services nutritionist Jocelyn Antonelli also stressed the dangers of perfectionism, which she said creates a proneness to eating disorders.

“[Students] want perfection in every area – including how they look and how they eat,” Antonelli said.

Such perfectionism can foster eating disorders and body image issues, ranging from compulsive exercising and anorexia to bingeing and purging meals, Shappell said.

“[Notre Dame] is really a pressure cooker for these disorders,” she said.

Valerie Staples, a counselor and eating disorders specialist at the University Counseling Center, said typical Notre Dame students “work hard and play hard.”

“Both can be positive. Both can be negative,” she said. “Finding a balance is a challenge for many students. Many have excelled [in the past] and find it difficult when they aren’t ‘number one,’ but one of many very successful students.”

The fear of transitioning from superstar to another face in the crowd contributes to the development of eating disorders, she said.

Disordered eating and exercising

Junior Ashley Weiss, chair of the Student Senate Gender Issues committee, and graduate student and co-conference coordinator Ali Wishon said they believe eating disorders are more common across Notre Dame’s campus than people realize – or are willing to accept.

“It’s something that you wake up and see everyday,” Weiss said. “You see the girls that wake up and go running every morning or the guys that are constantly at the gym – and then at the dining halls, you can see the health food craze,” she said. “None of [these things] are bad, but just taken to the extreme.”

Shappell agreed, saying she knew a substantial number of people in high school and at Notre Dame afflicted with eating disorders.

“I think that body image is something that nearly every young woman has struggled with, at least at some point in time,” she said.

At Notre Dame, Antonelli said she thinks eating disorders often stem from dieting or restrictive eating habits. Whether a student stops snacking, skips meals or eliminates carbohydrates, these habits – often paved with good intentions – can lead to disorders, she said.

Overall, students seem to put great emphasis on eating and staying healthy, but in some cases students become so food-conscious they are anxious about eating, she added.

“Some people are so concerned about the ‘freshman 15,'” Antonelli said. “This summer I had several students call before school started, stating they were anxious about [gaining weight]. That’s never happened before.”

Antonelli said she regularly sees students for nutritional counseling. If she believes a student is suffering from an eating disorder, she will refer the student to the Counseling Center, she said.

In addition to problems with food, obsessive or compulsive exercising may also become an issue for those struggling with body image disorders.

With a high percentage of former varsity athletes comprising the Notre Dame student body, “our campus is extremely athletic,” Shappell said. Such athleticism can place too much attention on staying fit and looking good, she said.

Notre Dame RecSports co-director Sally Derengoski said while RecSports provides services to students that promote healthy exercising habits – including the new personal training program – staff members see some students “take it to the extreme.”

“The great majority of students who come to play or work out are doing so within a range that is helpful and healthy,” Derengoski said. “Do we see cases that exceed that range? Certainly, and in those cases we work with the Counseling Center and the Office of Student Affairs to best provide for the student.”

However, a person doesn’t have to exercise excessively long or hard to be suffering from an eating disorder, Staples said.

“Even a reasonable amount of exercise could be questionable when the individual does so for the sole purpose of burning calories or reshaping their body rather than to be healthy or reduce stress,” Staples said.

Staples also mentioned binging and purging – two behaviors conducted much more secretively, she said.

Male body image: an overlooked issue

While research and media coverage have highlighted the problems of eating disorders among women, men are not exempt from eating disorders or image issues, Wishon said.

“That’s absolutely not true,” she said. “The current statistic is that 10 million women and one million men are suffering in the U.S.”

The conference’s keynote speaker, Dr. Roberto Olivardia, a Harvard Medical School scholar, will specifically address the male body image issue, she said.

“There’s really no name for it,” she said. “Men don’t know what to say when they are compulsively exercising, lifting weights so much they can’t do anything else.”

Derengoski said male Notre Dame students who exercise to a certain extent have attracted attention.

“We have had incidents with both males and females where concern has been expressed, either by a patron or staff,” she said.

Staples said the athletic culture at Notre Dame could also be a contributing factor behind these disorders.

“Certainly athleticism is a piece of what drives this,” she said. “Men tend to increase exercise and working out as a way to reshape their body rather than by dieting as women do.”

While the Counseling Center sees only “a few” men each year with eating disorder issues, that certainly does not mean there aren’t many of them affected, Staples said.

“Men are not immune to the cultural focus on appearance, but often find it more difficult to acknowledge a problem for fear of being seen as having a woman’s problem,” she said.

Counseling Center services in place

While conference organizers hope the event creates awareness of and dialogue about eating disorders, the Counseling Center already has a variety of services to help students struggling with disorders, Staples said. Options include individual or group counseling sessions.

“The approach to treatment is comprehensive and involves students working with a physician from Health Services,” she said.

The Counseling Center also consults family, friends and faculty members to detect potential victims of food or body image disorders, Staples said.

Students can call to schedule an appointment or contact health services. Wherever they feel most comfortable starting, they “will be put in touch with the other aspects of the treatment team,” Staples said.

Staples said that an estimated 13 to 15 percent of the students who come to the Counseling Center each year seek counseling for eating, weight or body image concerns.