Let’s talk eating disorders.
It is December. One of the most beautiful, event-filled months of the year. The holidays are fast-approaching, the year is finally coming to a close, and we can all taste the beginning of a glorious new year. We’re spending much-needed time with the friends we’ve been separated from all semester, and with the family we’ve missed so much. We can breathe a sigh of relief: finals are over.
It’s also the time you start to hear friends and family members say some upsetting things around the dinner table.
These could sound innocent, like, “Oh my God, I better stop eating now- I want to be able to fit into my pants tomorrow!” or “Ugh, I am going to have to add an hour to my workout tomorrow to work off this dessert.” It could even be guilt-clouded, like: “I have been so good until today…” as they stare at their licked-clean plate of pie. To you, these things might sound harmless. But it’s important to pay attention:
How we discuss food matters.
If you’re someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, it’s difficult to just laugh and joke around about these statements. To you, they are all too real.
People who struggle with eating disorders might have thoughts such as these running through their mind all day. Someone in recovery could finally be doing well and letting go of restrictions they’ve been imposing on themselves, only to be set back as soon as they hear a statement as seemingly innocent as the ones above.
Eating disorders are psychological; you can’t know if someone has one just by looking at them, which is exactly why it is best to completely avoid statements that associate guilt with food. This is true for your own mental health as well. Why feel guilty and contribute to our toxic culture of comparison when you can preach positivity instead?
It is a widespread misconception that having an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or other eating disorder is simply a choice an individual (man or woman) makes, and could be reversed if “he/she would just eat”. This is horribly inaccurate. Mental health is just as important, and sometimes difficult to manage, as physical health. No one chooses to get cancer, in the same way that no one chooses to struggle through an eating disorder. From the outside, you do not see the constant battle the person is going through with everyday things such as meals, exercise, and self-confidence. Having meals with others can be very difficult and stressful, and the person could be battling an internal conflict and experiencing discomfort that you can’t always see. Being a college student struggling with this (and being away from home) can be especially difficult.
Eating disorders do not discriminate. You never know who is starving themselves, purging their food, or exercising excessively, thinking they will be happy with themselves once they achieve the endlessly unattainable ideal of “skinny.” (If this sounds like you, let me let you in on a secret: The cycle continues. You never feel happy continuing with the cycle. Recovery is the first step towards happy. And it can be a long journey, but one that’s so worth taking.)
Early on this semester, I became friends with a girl named Meg Mottola through the Stony Brook Running Club. While getting to know her, I learned about her passion for educating others about eating disorders.
For most of my life, I have struggled with body image, and I developed an eating disorder early on in college after experiencing a lot of weight gain. I read her Facebook posts about her experience and recovery, and I knew I was not alone. Someone went through, and is going through, similar experiences to my own, in the same collegiate setting. Meg is a junior at Stony Brook majoring in Psychology and plans on pursuing a Master’s in Sports Psychology. She has experienced living with an eating disorder in college, and is on the journey to recovery. I asked her a few questions to learn more about her experience.
It is my hope that those reading this can learn something valuable from her words, just like I did.
Do you think there is enough education available for those looking to learn about eating disorders? Why do you think this education is important, especially on college campuses?
“Yes, I do think that is enough education available for people to learn about ED’s. Do I think we are utilizing the education available? No.
I think many people are naive to just how destructive and deadly these disorders are. Many turn a blind eye, including colleges. There are very few colleges that have specialized services for students struggling with these disorders. Typical counseling and psychological services sometimes aren’t enough. Students that do struggle with these disorders are referred to off campus professionals. While that can be great, it isn’t always conducive. Insurance often denies care to people with eating disorders until they are deemed ‘sick enough’ and by that point it could be too late. Having free services on campus is a life-saver to these students but without professionals being educated and having some sort of training, these students are not having their needs met.
It is so important to educate others simply because this disorder has the highest death rate of any psychological illness. Every 62 minutes someone with this disease dies (Eating Disorders Coalition). Eating disorders on college campuses are rising in prevalence each and every year. Educating others (including students) on how to recognize signs and symptoms, how to approach a friend, and how to support a friend, would allow those who suffer to not feel alone and to feel like their struggles are valid.
There is such a stigma on eating disorders which makes sufferers feel ashamed and as a result they hide their disorder. So by educating, we could get rid of that stigma that those who struggle aren’t just doing it for attention or because they’re vain. It is not just a women’s disorder, and it isn’t JUST about the food and weight.
Also, education could help lead to prevention, which is HUGE. Treating eating disorders is complex and finding a cure has been SO difficult. Instead, we need to focus on prevention and education. These things are key when it comes to that. Awareness campaigns and groups could be implemented on campus. I know certain college campuses have student-run groups that help provide support and body positivity to those who struggle with eating disorders or other issues that are body-image related. National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (which is annually held every February) is a perfect opportunity for colleges to get their students involved in raising awareness and being advocates for those with eating disorders.”
Our Fit University chapter @ Stony Brook will raise awareness in February.
Share a bit about your experience and what it is like recovering in a college setting.
“Recovering in college was extremely difficult. I’ve been in recovery from anorexia and exercise addiction for 7 years now. When I first came to school 4 years ago, I had just left treatment for the 3rd time. There were no specialists at my school and I could barely afford to see an outpatient team. I remember trying to see a professional on campus and her first question to me was, “Wait, so you still have an eating disorder?” I was baffled that someone who apparently was a professional in the psychology field could even say that. With proper education, people would know that this disorder doesn’t just go away one day. It is a process.
Recovery is a journey. Coming onto a college campus, I would constantly see and hear phrases like “freshman 15 this”, “don’t eat that”, “choose this option”, “stay away from crap”, “avoid these foods”, “X is bad and Y is good” – all over the campus dining halls.
First of all, a certain food can’t be morally good or bad. When we label food that way we begin to think we are essentially good or bad too based on what we eat. If we stopped labeling food, the way we view it might change. Also, every student has different needs, but on college campuses especially. I think it’s safe to say that we’re targeting only one side of the population, and the way we interact with food isn’t at all suited for those either experiencing or in recovery from an eating disorder. It actually is an eating disorder sufferer’s worst nightmare.
These exact sayings about what to eat and not to eat, and what foods are “good” vs “bad”, were things that I told myself for so long, things that led me down a destructive path.
At the time, it was triggering. And it was everywhere.
I understand that there is an obesity epidemic, but people forget that there is another end to the health spectrum and that it’s just as dangerous. Nothing in the campus dining halls were geared toward the issue at the opposite end.
I was constantly filled with guilt if I chose to have a wrap over a salad one day. In my recovery, I learned that after denying myself of food for so long, it’s okay to eat these things in moderation. I can eat pizza. I can eat a cookie and I don’t need to go the gym to burn off the calories right after.
I think even having an extra dietitian as a campus resource who had extensive clinical background would have been helpful, especially since disordered eating and eating disorders are becoming so common among college students. No one knows how to approach it or handle it, so we kind of brush it under the rug and think, “It’s just a phase. It’ll pass.”
The gym is also a breeding ground for disordered behavior. I used to spend hours in my campus recreation center yet no one ever approached me or asked if I was okay. That only made me feel like what I was doing was okay. Eventually I suffered multiple injuries and so I was forced to stop. In our society we are told to workout more and more and that if we do, then we will be happier. Being on a campus where the gym was open more than 15 hours in a day was so hard for me. No one in campus recreation centers are educated on what to do if there is a student with an eating disorder or a student is suspected of having one. I think it’s SO vital to have that kind of education for the professionals within that department. Even having a specialist within the rec centers (like a sports psychologist or sports nutritionist) would have been helpful; Especially after my experience at the counseling center that first year, I felt I couldn’t talk to anyone at school. No one understood.
The lack of support on campus was really hard for me. You begin to lose meaning of what health is about. It becomes solely about the body and what you look like, instead of something fun and enjoyable, and you see that so much on college campuses and in our society. Instructors talking about burning calories and working out because you feel you have to, not because you want to. We need to start preaching body positivity and helping students redefine what health really means. You don’t need to workout to earn your next meal. Recovery from an eating disorder is literally doing the opposite of what society tells us we need to do.
Recovering from anorexia and exercise addiction is hard in this society. Sometimes, recovering is gaining weight, even when society is preaching we have to lose it to be happy and love ourselves. I mean think about it, when was the last time you saw a weight gain ad?
Recovery is eating that slice of pizza because you want it and it tastes good. Recovery is saying no to yourself when you get the urge to go to the gym because you want to burn off everything you ate. It’s working out because you ALREADY love your body, not so that you can love it. It’s finding exercise you enjoy, not dread. It’s knowing that just because someone else is at the gym for 2 hours, doesn’t mean you should be there too. It’s realizing that dieting won’t solve your problem, and losing weight isn’t the key to happiness. It’s skipping a class one day because you know you need to eat lunch and a mental health day would do you good. It’s always asking yourself, ‘is what I am doing now going to help my future self?’
I owe so much of my recovery and success to my friends on campus. I became very open about my eating disorder as time went on so I’ve been able to get continued support from them. I also owe it to a few professionals I have met on my campus who were willing to educate themselves. Without their support, I wouldn’t have had continued success with my recovery.
Now if only we could expand that education. Recovery from an eating disorder is hard but society makes it way harder. It can be made easier and more effective. College is filled with so much pressure and so much wanting to fit in and ultimately this can lead to a lot of destructive health patterns. The biggest thing for my recovery has been support, and that is exactly what many college campuses are lacking. With proper education comes support, awareness, prevention, and strategies to intervene and give someone the proper help. You can’t go wrong with education. It can only help.”
If someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, something as simple as asking how they are doing every once in a while can have a big impact on them. Show them you care and they have your support.
Shout out to Meg for letting me interview her!