Day 3: Mind and body (Eating disorders)

Andrea Damewood

Everyone has seen someone like her. The girl, entering the dining hall, dressed in sweats that hang on her body, coming straight from the gym, where she has been doing cardio workouts for three hours. She strides past the entrees and the desserts, right to the salad bar, where she sprinkles lettuce on her plate and tops it with her own fat-free dressing produced from her gym bag. You can see every rib she has as she reaches for an apple.

Many people assume she simply wants to be skinny. But that’s only a small part of the picture. Eating disorders are about more than weight; they are mental illnesses that have various causes, and they are more covert and complex than most students know.

About 15 percent of college students nationwide develop extreme eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia — and Northwestern is no exception. Causes can include a fear of gaining the dreaded “freshman 15,” depression, perfectionism or feeling out of control.

About 13 percent of students develop full-blown bulimia, and 2 to 3 percent of students have anorexia, said Renee Redd, director of NU’s Women’s Center. Many others will develop less severe eating disorders. And more than 85 percent of them will be women.

“It has been prevalent at Northwestern and institutions like Northwestern,” Redd said. “There aren’t a lot of overweight women on Northwestern’s campus.”

But not all sufferers fit the image of the skeletal girl in the dining hall.

Though eating disorders typically are associated with upper-class white women, both Redd and Counseling and Psychological Services psychologist Paulette Stronczek said demographics are changing. Men now account for 10 percent of anorexics and 13 percent of bulimics, Redd said.

And at NU that means students are grappling with eating disorders in areas that are expected — and some that are not.

Shattering the stereotypes

NU draws people who might be more predisposed to eating disorders, Stronczek said.

“It hits a lot of women who want to be perfect,” Stronczek said. “Perfectionism is something a lot of Northwestern students face.”

She estimated that 25 percent of students come to CAPS with eating concerns, which often are accompanied by depression or trauma.

Society’s emphasis on body image — from media pictures to peer pressure — also contributes to a rise in eating disorders, Redd said.

“Image determines everything,” she said. “And models and actresses, that’s who we define as the most worthy women.”

Television shows such as ABC’s “Extreme Makeover,” where contestants get plastic surgery, and a $330 billion diet industry reflect the priority society has placed on attempting to reach the impossible, Redd said.

Ever-growing pressure for perfection is felt across campus, from sorority sisters to athletes.

“One of the hardest parts of being in a sorority is seeing all these beautiful girls who are stick-thin, and I wonder why I don’t look like them,” said sorority sister Amika Porwal a Weinberg sophomore. “I get disheartened sometimes.”

NU athletes are not exempt from worrying about their bodies. According to the Harvard Eating Disorders Center Web site, those who compete in sports where body shape and size are a factor — such as swimming, crew, gymnastics, water polo and wrestling — are at a higher risk for developing eating disorders.

Varsity crew member Eviatar Frankel, a McCormick sophomore, said he has crash-dieted, losing eight pounds in three days to make the weight cut-off for the lightweight boat.

“I ate two meals a day — just a salad with a little bit of turkey on top,” he said. “I kept on practicing normally and I can burn up to 1,500 calories in a workout. It affected school and everything. I had a hard time staying awake.”

Even though he said he would never crash-diet again, Frankel would like to use proper diet and exercise to obtain the ideal shape.

“I’d like to have the perfect crew body,” he said. “When you get that, you get respect from guys, respect from girls and self-respect.”

Even people who are not athletes can resort to extreme measures to burn calories, according to Nancy Tierney, manager of NU fitness and wellness. She said she sees “at least half a dozen” people on a regular basis who overexercise and do not eat. NU’s facilities cannot ban students from exercising, Tierney said, but that may be for the best: Those who overexercise are supervised in case they collapse.

“We have some people who open the doors, come back in the afternoon and at night (to exercise),” she said, adding that overexercisers often hit more than one gym a day to hide their habits. “They get creative on how they can get in as much exercise as possible.”

Somebody to lean on

About 20 percent of those with eating disorders will show no substantial improvement even with treatment, according to the Harvard Eating Disorders Center. That could be because of the highly secretive and personal nature of eating disorders — especially bulimia, where people often retain a normal size.

Also, denial is one of the first symptoms of a disorder, CAPS psychologist Stronczek said.

“They have to have this ‘everything is OK’ front,” she said. “They often have some places where they feel out of control, and so they control the way they eat. People do sometimes feel embarrassed or ashamed.”

A close support system of friends or team members can serve as a safety net to catch those who are at risk, Stronczek said.

The women’s club water polo team members “eat as healthy as any college-aged girl who is trying not to gain weight,” said captain Amalia Aleck, a Weinberg senior.

“It’s also not that serious of a team,” Aleck added, expressing surprise that water polo was considered a high-risk sport. “Everyone’s close enough to everybody to where they could help each other through it.”

Sororities and other tight-knit groups can be a double-edged sword, Stronczek said, depending on the habits they develop together.

Greek Student Counselor Payal Adhikari, who lives in Kappa Kappa Gamma, said that at her house, the kitchen is the gathering place, and often women notice developing eating disorders before they get too serious. But the same does not apply for all greek houses.

“In some houses it is a big issue,” said Adhikari, a Weinberg junior. “I think it is mostly where girls get in a little group and follow the same exercise and diet patterns, and it’s hard to break in from the outside when everyone is saying, ‘It’s OK.'”

Greek Student Counselors from Kappa Alpha Theta and Delta Zeta declined to comment, saying the issue was “too personal.” Adhikari said such silence might stem from having friends who have dealt with disorders.

“I think people have trouble understanding that eating disorders are a disease, not a choice,” she said. “I think they judge others for eating disorders, they think it’s a choice and they can get over it, but they can’t.”

Redd of the Women’s Center agreed that hesitancy to talk about an eating problem often stems fear of what others will think.

But many confidential sources of help exist for students, Stronczek said. Nearly everyone on campus — from the SodexhoUSA dietician to Sports Pavilion and Aquatics Center employees, to resident assistants and Greek Student Counselors — is connected to CAPS and is able to provide advice on seeking help.

Stronczek said it is important to get help as soon as someone suspects a problem.

“People can get better,” she said, “and you don’t have to go through this alone.”

About the series

Mental-health issues often remain hidden, a solitary struggle for those who shoulder the burdens of depression, eating disorders, anxiety and many other diseases. Yet suicides on college campuses and a rise in students seeking psychological treatment nationwide are forcing universities, including Northwestern, to face the realities of mental disorders. State of Mi
nd is an effort to break the silence. For seven days THE DAILY will explore the condition of mental-health services on campus and introduce students to five of their peers who have battled mental illness. In hopes of sparking discussion about these issues at NU, THE DAILY encourages participation in the dialogue. Please send any feedback to [email protected]

If you or someone you know needs help …
*For 24-hour crisis assistance, call 847-491-8100
*CAPS offices are located on the second floor of Searle Hall, 633 Emerson St.
*To make a CAPS appointment, call 847-491-2151. Appointments are scheduled Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
*CAPS holds emergency walk-in hours Monday through Friday from noon to 2 p.m.