Editor’s note: This column discusses disordered eating and body dysmorphia, so readers should be advised.
“You’re withering away,” my roommate said with droopy eyes. I looked at my half-empty smoothie sitting on my desk as I lay limp across my mattress. 320 calories, I thought. But I only drank half, so 160. I was eating just barely enough to keep myself alive — but this was normal, right?
At most universities, eating disorders are normalized, if not glorified. With unfamiliar factors affecting eating habits, such as a change in routines or accessibility to food, young adults may develop damaging techniques that go unrecognized due to the gross encouragement of undernourishment in college.
I want to first highlight the competitive nature of those who struggle with eating disorders. A massive symptom of disordered eating includes studying the habits of others. The victim may start to compare their own eating habits to those around them to make sure that they eat less. These observations create a cushion of validation and success in the victim’s mind, despite the negative impact on their condition. There really is no prominent solution to this issue, but I feel it needs addressing. In pre-university life, my acquaintances often competed with each other’s disordered habits. Speaking from experience, this amplifies in college. Especially in living spaces, the mindset of an eating disorder victim starts to rub off on others. According to Lauren Smolar, director of programs at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), meals are a social act that can have a seemingly contagious effect. An example of this can be taken from my personal life — if my friends didn’t eat, I didn’t, and vice versa. The cycle was vicious. This happened with my other relationships as well. I want to emphasize that the mind of someone with an eating disorder is wired to always watch the customs of those around them and intuitively beat their approach, convincing themselves of being apparently sicker than their competition. It’s all a game to us. Roommates make this cycle nauseatingly difficult to ignore.
I’ll now turn to the most alarming category of my findings: Greek life. Focusing on sororities, there are tremendously hazardous hazing practices that motivate disordered eating. I want to emphasize the cruelty behind a practice called washing machine hazing. According to the University of Southern California Digital Folklore Archives, the practice involved making pledges“sit on washing machines naked and girls circle parts on their body that jiggle.” Though this database solely documents stories heard and passed around campus, there are claims of washing machine hazing happening at multiple universities throughout the country, such as Montclair State University and Young Harris College, as reported in Cosmopolitan and Bustle. There are infinite reasons as to why this approach is dangerously detrimental. Not only does this encourage fatphobia, but it pushes body dysmorphia onto the victims and will likely prompt the start of eating disorders. Aside from this nightmare of a process, sororities generally push the traditional beauty standard, convincing girls they must be skinny to be accepted into the chapter. The disgraceful amount of encouragement toward eating disorders infused in Greek life practices should be reported much more than it currently is.
Branching off of the criticism I’ve proposed, there are red flags surrounding the high drive for partying that is praised by mainly Greek organizations but also general university culture. It’s a fact that alcohol is high in calories. The increase of drinking in college scares some students into developing eating disorders. According to eating disorder specialist Lori Schur, “If [students] don’t want to gain weight they will drink anyway but often skip eating during the day.” There is not nearly enough recognition of this issue in college. It is painfully normal for students to starve during the day in order to look thinner and compensate for calories being consumed that night. I’ve had far too many experiences of hearing this, which made me question my own behavior and eventually master this damaging technique.
A related form of abuse connected to going out in college is the introduced drug accessibility and commonality, sparking the interest of students. The casual use of drugs is responsible for normalizing drug abuse. Certain drugs are proven to contribute to weight loss. With easy access to drugs in college, the abuse of cocaine and other slimming drugs becomes incredibly common. I can recall a few people that have resorted to the abuse of drugs in response to weight changes. According to Yami Virgin at CBS Austin, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) “tells us [cocaine] is also being used again by young college students to fundamentally alter their body’s metabolism.” It is harmful enough to struggle with an eating disorder, but turning to drug addiction to fuel another deadly problem cannot be swept under the rug. There has been documented recognition of this issue, but silence continues to cloud awareness. This may be one of the stimulants of eating disorder normalization in college, as the problem is rarely reported.
The last factor I want to address is the umbrella term used to insult healthy weight gain while at university: the freshman 15, or a dreaded weight gain during freshman year of college. This term has been thrown around for so long that almost every individual I’ve met is completely desensitized to its ignorance. I have not come across a single individual that doesn’t know what the freshman 15 is. It is globally displayed as a horrendously scary and humiliating change that must be avoided at all costs. However, gaining weight after settling into college is completely healthy. There is a shift in every student’s life commencing college, whether it be in eating habits, physical activity or mental wellness. These factors all contribute to weight fluctuation, yet it continues to be ridiculously frowned upon. There is an entire website, named fthe15.com, dedicated to encourage and celebrate the avoidance of gaining normal college weight. The site recruits ambassadors from different schools to praise what seems like a healthy lifestyle between the mixture of eating clean and working out when, in actuality, the program promotes fatphobia and the avoidance of gaining a few pounds. Whether a part of this program or not, just being conscious of its existence pulls individuals into fearing the stigma, frightening them into avoiding the freshmen 15 whether the approach is healthy or not. This not only makes those that gained weight in college feel terrible about themselves but it pushes a certain feeling of accomplishment toward those that did not, which introduces a sense of disordered eating and body dysmorphia in the future as those individuals become more obsessed with their weight.
It isn’t easy to admit my own downfall into the toxic culture of disordered eating in college, but I will. Being surrounded by horrific critiques and behaviors made me spiral into developing these deadly tricks. Although eating disorders are unsettlingly common outside of the college world, being away at college borderline brainwashes students into practicing these certain behaviors. The lack of coverage makes the circumstances much worse. The mixture of adaptation to others’ disordered eating habits, party culture, emphasis on avoiding weight gain and terror toward the freshman 15 add to the celebration of undernourishment, making it scarily easy to collect these gruesome ideas toward yourself while away at college. I’ve sadly put in more effort to change the way I physically appear than I did to develop a less toxic perspective surrounding eating habits building my corporeal health. After admitting this, however, I can share with you some of the mannerisms I’ve picked up to create a more simplistic, better relationship with food over the past few months.
In order to recover, the person struggling must be ready and willing to get better. Please note that being a victim of anorexia, I can only vouch for an obsession with food restriction. To continue, recovery seems intimidating due to the fact that the disordered mind wants nothing more than to stay sick. Since this is much easier said than done, it’s obvious that the victim will not be ready for recovery instantly. To prepare, small changes in the habits of the victim are crucial to be made. Ditch scales, delete calorie apps and cut size tags. It is difficult to let go of such an obsession, but after the change is made, the journey into recovery is much easier than how it started. The victim will learn to get used to oblivion what it comes to the numerical aspect of restrictive diets. Once this ease is settled, there will likely be less pressure to keep numbers low. I was able to get more comfortable with nourishment as my obsessions lessened.
An additional piece of advice for those struggling is that some victims, like myself, tend to cope with verbal comments or jokes about their condition. This should end as soon as possible. Comments about eating disorders or habits are almost always toxic and never beneficial to either the speaker or the listener. Making jokes about starving, body size or other sensitive topics swirling around the eating disorder world can trigger or offend people, whether they have an eating disorder or not. Abolishing these remarks as a whole can be a difficult habit to break, but a vast motion forwards into recovery. After working on lessening obsessions and habits, actual eating will become easier and more habitual. Not only will the victim’s mindset clear and strengthen, but their physical health will improve as well. The improvement of their person will additionally help them transition back into relationships that have been strained because of an eating disorder, and mindfulness of others’ disorders will increase. In retrospect, recovery is an eternal process that gets more and more worth the commitment over time.
Alexis Fischer is a sophomore majoring in English