Body Image and Disordered Eating in Campus Life

Chris DiLullo Staff Writer

Trigger warning: This article pertains to issues of disordered eating and body image concerns.

For college-aged adolescents, dealing with moving to college, finding friends and other adolescent-related anxieties can make some days difficult. Whether it is worrying about passing a class or finding the friends you want to spend four years of your life with, the college period in anyone’s life can be very difficult.

However, two issues that many college-aged adolescents deal with that may not be quite as evident as some of the ones mentioned above are eating disorders and body image concerns. Many adolescents struggle with feelings of anxiety and discomfort about their body already, and in a modern world where everyone is dealing with increased anxiety due to a global pandemic, those with eating disorders are facing an even more difficult environment than before.

Robia Smith-Herman, a therapist at the Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders, believes that the global pandemic and quarantine have exacerbated difficulties for individuals diagnosed with eating disorders.

“One of the things that’s important to note about eating disorders is that they thrive in isolation, and so, if you couple the increased isolation with the increased stress and everything that’s going on in the world, eating disorders are also disorders of emotion and disorders of connection,” Smith-Herman said. “We can see an increase in the eating disorder because it’s responding to those emotional experiences.”

However, coming to campus for the first time or returning for the start of the school year brings its own set of triggers and potential issues. Smith-Herman pointed out the patented “Freshman 15,” notably reimagined as the ‘Quarantine 15” in recent months and explained that the concept can be harmful to students.

“The ‘Quarantine 15’ is just a reimagined ‘Freshman 15, and it’s still this idea that promotes that thin ideal, that you must be thin to be accepted and the idea that gaining weight is a negative thing…and these messages and these jokes are really harmful, particularly to individuals with eating disorders who are dealing with body image concerns as well, as it reinforces this idea that your body is what is communicating for you, that you must look a certain way in order to be accepted, in order to make friends, in order to get good grades, and that’s really not the case,” she said.

College students can face an uphill battle against eating disorders and body image concerns given the prevalence of social media and the turmoil that many have had to face over the past months with the constant change in the world. Taking care of oneself has the potential to take a backseat when compared to anxieties about the state of the world and the progression of the pandemic, and that could result in dangerous habits for many adolescents.

Thus, Smith-Herman spoke of several tips she had for college students looking to take care of themselves, whether on a meal plan or cooking for oneself. Most prominently, Smith-Herman noted the importance of remembering that all foods fit into one’s life.

“One of the things that we really talk about at Renfrew is the idea that all foods fit, and really, when you attach judgment to food, labeling it ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy,’ that can create a negative relationship with food,” Smith-Herman said.

Among other pieces of advice, Smith-Herman encouraged students to pay attention to sales in grocery stores to get high-quality foods at lower prices, to look for foods that are in season to take advantage of their lower prices and to buy protein in bulk and freeze it to get the most for your dollar.

Ultimately, Smith-Herman maintained that students should step away from labeling food as “healthy” or “unhealthy” and to remember that fluctuations in weight are normal and to let the body do its job of monitoring weight.

The pandemic and returning to school make things difficult for every student, including those dealing with eating disorders or body image concerns. If you are interested in seeking help or have any questions, consult the Villanova Health Center.