Will the Stigma About Eating Disorders Ever End?
This week, February 26 – March 3, is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
This guest post is by Rosemarie Driscoll, a sophomore majoring in English at Saint Peter’s College. She is working as an intern for the National Eating Disorders Association.
When I left for college, my sister became largely responsible for the care of our disabled father and five younger siblings. When I came home to visit, I watched her dump cinnamon into her black coffee, telling me that it’s “negative calories.” She took pills in the morning to boost her metabolism and laxatives before bed.
My sister had always been very concerned with her food, choosing to munch on spinach leaves while the rest of us had potato chips, or drinking so much water that she passed out at a cross country meet.
Facts About Eating Disorders
Young women are more likely to develop and report eating disorders than any other demographic because of the media’s increased influence on their appearance and of incredible pressure to succeed. Young men are also affected but because of the stigma surrounding eating disorders, they are less likely to report it: in the US, 10 million women and 1 million men are reported to be suffering from an eating disorder.
Across the gender divide, perfectionists are the most susceptible to developing eating disorders. Trouble arises in times of heavy stress and extreme change. At a time when an individual feels little control, obsessively regulating the food that goes into and out of your body can seem like a way to have some control amid chaos.
My sister left for college last fall planning to major in biology. Not long into the semester, she started receiving failing grades. She told me about trouble sleeping, not having enough time to exercise and the awful selection in the cafeteria.
When we were both home for Thanksgiving, we were talking over the black, cinnamon-spiced coffee when my sister told me she was bulimic and anorexic. I felt guilty that I hadn’t stepped in before — as though I could have grabbed her shoulders and shook her until she ate something besides a laxative — but with the flood of research I did directly after this conversation I learned that while I could do a few things to help, my sister needed to come to terms with her eating disorder first.
The Particular Problems of Eating Disorders For College Students
College students are constantly encouraged to compare themselves to others. We’re ranked by grades, extra curricular involvement, and our projected income. We rank ourselves by the numbers of admirers we can attract, the money we spend on our clothes, or our bodies’ weights and measurements.
Education, students know, is far too precious a commodity to waste. For female students, the pressure to succeed is doubled: we have to work twice as hard for the recognition that comes more easily to our male counterparts, who have been attending universities for a century longer. In view of this, perhaps it is not so surprising that one in five college women struggles with an eating disorder.
In our modern, image-centered culture, success is not complete, especially for women, if it is “merely” professional or intellectual. A successful person must also be perfect in appearance.
Helping Someone With an Eating Disorder
The best thing you can do for someone with an eating disorder is provide an understanding, nonjudgmental environment. Therapy often helps, but an eating disorders is an internal, psychological problem that can really only be fixed internally; the only way that can happen is through acceptance.
Much of the movement to help those with eating disorders focuses on having a positive body image. While the promotion of this message is important, it’s not the cure-all for those who struggle with anorexia and bulimia. We won’t be able to eradicate eating disorders without first eradicating the stigma our culture attaches to them. Misunderstanding about eating disorders only perpetuates feelings of inadequacy and failure, which are too often behind the development of the disorder. There have to be other ways to express discontent with yourself than starving yourself, or binging and purging.
My sister, like 60% of those afflicted with an eating disorder, may never fully recover. To eat regularly will be a daily struggle. She will have to learn, as we all should learn, that she can make a mistake and still be a decent, worthy, capable person.
If we could replace the negativity and judgement that we see so often in our society with that hopeful, forgiving and understanding attitude, if we can think of everyone we meet — and ourselves — that way, we will be on the way to eliminate eating disorders.
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Photo by tobias fotografiert