Eating disorders run rampant among image-obsessed youth

Caitlin Connors

Studies indicate that by their first year of college, up to 18 percent of women have a history of bulimia and in their four years of college, one in 15 girls will be bulimic. According to the same studies, on Villanova’s campus alone, 20 percent of students are believed to engage in anorexic or bulimic eating behaviors.

In gyms on campus, students take time out from their hustled lives to sweat away with weights or cardio workouts. On a warm day, the sidewalks are filled with students stomping sneakers as they go for a daily run. Is the scene described a montage for a Nike commercial? Or a sign of abuse? In a society where according to USA Today, the second top-selling book in America (defeated only by J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter”) is Dr. Atkins’ “New Diet Revolution,” are Villanova students simply living healthy, or are they quietly suffering from a dangerously normalized addiction?

Every fall, students pack their suitcases, kiss their parents goodbye outside the entrance to their dorms and bound eagerly away from the world they knew to the adulthood they had dreamed of as a child, dressed in their parents oversized clothes. As millions before have done, they begin their new lives without the support net of family and friends. Thrust into hallways of unknown faces, some students reasonably feel lost with an unmanageable load of work, school and being accepted. And it is this pressure to fit in which opens the door to unhealthy substitutions for patience.

Perhaps at Villanova, a prestigious university in academics and a place where the effort for physical attractiveness equals that for a thesis paper, students are more susceptible to these substitutions.

Community outreach coordinator at The Renfrew Center, a non-profit eating disorder clinic in Philadelphia, Molly Ahrens says, “Because college years are a time of transition, those are prime times when eating disorders are developed.”

An anonymous Villanova student, who is a recovering bulimic, finds college an especially hard time to fight her resurfacing problem. “Since I struggled with an eating disorder in high school, I’ve really had a hard time since being here at Villanova because it seems to be all around me and so accepted,” she says.

If statistics show that one of every four college women have some sort of eating disorder, then around 1,844 students of the 7,375 enrolled at Villanova would statistically have an eating disorder. But who is to blame for these seriously high numbers? Is it the fault of the university, or are college females simply easy targets for this psychological villain?

“Middle-class adolescents and women in their twenties with a strong orientation toward academic achievement and a traditional lifestyle, including marriage, are most vulnerable,” says Boskind and White in their book, “Bulimiarexia: The Binge/Purge Cycle.”

Although there is a standard list of personality types that increase susceptibility to the disease, they are by no means the only kinds of people that are affected. Even without the classic characteristics of perfectionism, low self-esteem or a history of abuse, many girls still fall victim. Contrary to popular belief, one cannot pin-point someone with an eating disorder by simply looking for the symptoms of thin hair and sunken eyes. As maintained by Dr. Linda Bock’s “The Hazards of Constant Under-Nutrition,” symptoms of an eating disorder in the amateur stages are: constant tiredness, lack of menstruation, preoccupation with food, odd-eating habits (such as not letting different food touch on a plate), inability to be happy, excessive use of non-food satisfiers (gum, coffee, etc.), moodiness, difficulty sleeping, disturbed energy and decreased interest in sex.

Some students don’t perceive having a problem with their eating routines. “Forty to 50 percent of people have some sort of unhealthy eating habits,” explains Dr. Dominiak, a psychologist at Villanova’s Counseling Center. Diets, running and lifting are all in the same category of unhealthy habits when taken to the extreme. As society normalizes minimalist types of eating habits and extreme workout routines, it tends to forget the risks of these “achievements.” Laxatives, purging and over-exercise to compensate with food taken in are all warning signs of this preoccupation.

“A healthy exercise routine would be three to five times a week for about 45 minutes,” Dominiak says. “It becomes excessive when you exercise more than once a day and are counting how many calories you are taking in.” With the assumption that this type of eating isn’t that bad, “the physical consequences are often downplayed,” says Dr. Dominiak.

Dr. Rachel McKay of Villanova’s Counseling Center says that Villanova does not keep exact statistics on students who come in with eating disorders, because “many students with bulimia, who can sometimes hide their disorder, are reluctant to ask for help.”

Studies in the Journal of American College Health, though, show that someone who suffers an eating disorder is most likely Caucasian, from a high socioeconomic status, with many internal conflicts, such as a strive for perfection. Certainly this fits the majority of students on the Main Line.

Employees of the Counseling Center also said that they offer only a short-term clinic, so students who have a problem for more than a semester are referred off campus. Any student at Bryn Mawr College and Villanova would be referred to the nearby Renfrew Center. So, while the Counseling Center was reluctant to give any solid facts about our campus in particular, Ahrens of the Philadelphia branch did admit that of the clients frequenting the clinic, “most of them are college-aged students.”

Since eating disorders are so manipulative and elusive, it is hard for any clinic or campus counseling center to be responsible for the hidden victims. The best way to make a change is in the students – having knowledge of what’s happening, an acceptance of the problem and a determination to make a conscious change. But like any patient of a fatal disease, one can’t survive alone. Knowing the sensitivity of the issue, students can recognize all stages and learn to help positively reinforce healthy eating styles. Unfortunately, many girls who are hiding eating disorders will remain numbers until they cease to be a problem – until it’s too late.