Augustine: The importance of eating disorder education on college campuses

Kathryn Augustine, Op-Ed Contributor

From “maintain ongoing consent” to ”monitor your binge-drinking habits,” Northwestern’s set of comprehensive True Northwestern Dialogues, better known as TNDs, cover a spectrum of topics as part of the first-year experience. Yet, in retrospect, I wished they discussed the growing issue of eating disorders and negative body image in greater detail.

Education cannot erase people’s genetic compositions that predispose them to eating disorders, or perfectionist temperaments that increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.
But even though it may not bring an end to the issue altogether, I think that education through TNDs and other large-scale discussions, ideally prior to college in mandatory health classes in middle and high school, can prevent the normalization of these issues and raise awareness about them.

A focus on eating disorders before the start of freshman year classes is so important given that these disorders often emerge with transition periods. The shift from living at home with rules implemented by your parents and the comfort of friends you’ve known for ages to a new college environment is particularly significant and marked by anxiety, uncertainty and fear. These emotions breed eating disorders in those who are predisposed, making education and raised awareness at this particular period critical.

Beyond the newness that college brings, there is also the challenge of dining halls that are difficult to navigate, given the multitude of options available and the draw of comparing plates and portions with your peers. Total autonomy over meals and access to unlimited portions of often unhealthy food can be stress-inducing for many. And the fact that there are no set meal times can permit individuals to avoid that environment altogether and limit their food intake.

Given the hurdles that college presents, it’s no surprise that 10 to 20 percent of females and 4 to 10 percent of males face eating disorders on campus. And these numbers are on the rise with each coming year, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.

“I look so fat in that picture.” “I hate my arms.” “I need to shed 15 pounds before recruitment starts.” Statements like these are nothing out of the ordinary and fail to faze us because body dissatisfaction is so ingrained in our culture, particularly for young women. When negative comments are so prevalent, it’s difficult to discern whether your level of self-dissatisfaction, or someone else’s, is “the norm” or a symptom of an eating disorder.

Without any knowledge of what the term “eating disorder” truly means, people may find it challenging to accept and acknowledge that their thoughts surrounding their self-image and the behaviors they engage in are damaging to their mental and physical health.

People may believe they know what an eating disorder is, but I think the image that typically comes to mind is the rail-thin girl who refuses to eat. However, eating disorders are not always visible to the eye and anorexia nervosa is just a single type.

Colleges, in addition to middle and high schools, should discuss the symptoms of eating disorders, diagnostic criteria, the different types of eating disorders and how to reach out for help, either for yourself or a peer. Then, perhaps, a greater awareness could emerge and allow individuals to receive treatment early on or halt the emergence of a disorder in the process.

An eating disorder can look like an individual who compulsively overeats. Or an individual who exercises daily without eating enough nutrients to sustain themselves. Awareness of the diversity of eating disorders is an essential component of education, because “eating disorder” is not a synonym for starving oneself. Eating disorders can manifest in different forms, and if people don’t understand that, they can simply assume the person’s toxic habits around food do not warrant change.

Another misconception that needs to be addressed in schools is that an eating disorder, regardless of the name, is not entirely focused on food and weight. It can often emerge out of a need for control, unrealistic body standards, stress or a traumatic experience. It could happen to someone who was never concerned with food before or was never self-conscious about their weight. It could happen to any given student.

Given how combating an eating disorder is such a timely, grueling process, the solution is to stop the disorder before it can even take form, through spreading awareness via education and combating myths.

Kathryn Augustine is a Medill first-year. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.