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Why we need to talk about eating disorders

| Friday, September 11, 2020

During my sophomore year of college, I developed a serious eating disorder, relentlessly pursuing “health” in eating and movement to appease my feelings that I was not enough and not worthy of love or success. My life revolved around food and exercise, and I felt painfully disconnected from myself, alone in my struggles and increasingly dispassionate about my future and what I had to offer the world.

Unfortunately, my struggles are not unique, especially on college campuses. According to a 2006 survey conducted by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), nearly 20% of college students indicated that they have or previously had an eating disorder. Another study, conducted in 2011, found that eating disorders affected 25% of men and 32.6% of women on college campuses. These statistics alone are striking, yet it is likely that in recent years, rates of eating disorders are even higher.

There is not one cause for the onset of an eating disorder, but rather, a perfect storm of biological, psychological and social factors contribute to their development. Importantly, eating disorders (and mental illnesses in general), thrive in isolation and times of uncertainty. In this way, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented ideal circumstances for the development and intensification of eating disorders.

Eating disorders are always important to talk about, but they are especially important to talk about at this time. While being back at school may be good in some ways as students reunite with friends and find purpose in their classes and extracurricular activities, many of the changes with the dining options and limited spaces to interact with others could be barriers to eating disorder recovery and may even contribute to the onset or maintenance of an eating disorder.

Even for those not struggling with food, the dining hall is difficult to navigate. The options are limited, and the portioned “meals” are incredibly small. This is not ideal for anyone, but for those with eating disorders, this may result in skipped meals, restriction or bingeing on snacks from the Huddle when alone. Food can emerge as a way to cope with difficult feelings commonly experienced at this time — feelings of isolation and loneliness, feelings of uncertainty about how the semester and this pandemic are going to progress, feelings of depression or anxiety. Similarly, energy may be dedicated to a new exercise routine that quickly becomes compulsive as one latches onto some sense of control and accomplishment.

Although eating disorders are oftentimes stereotyped as a skinny, white, affluent girl issue, this leaves out the lived experiences of many. Eating disorders affect people of all genders, races, socioeconomic statuses, body types and backgrounds, and it is important that we look out for all those we care about.

If we see those around us worrying excessively about weight, food, calories or dieting; refusing to eat certain foods or categories of foods; avoiding meals with others; withdrawing from usual activities; skipping meals or eating small portions; or exhibiting any other concerning behaviors, we can check in with them. None of the circumstances of our present reality should be taken lightly, and it is important that we continue to have the difficult conversations, especially those surrounding mental health. Let us all look out for each other, and instead of talking about how we gained the “quarantine 15” or how we can make this our “skinny semester,” focus on ways we can stay connected to those around us and support each other. If someone we care about is struggling, let us encourage them to seek help, whether that be through the UCC or an outside service. And let us continue to look out for our own mental health and well-being as we navigate these unprecedented times.

Agatha Laboe


Sept. 2

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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