It has been a mere six weeks on campus and already I have lost track of the number of times I have heard some excuse to skip a meal: too much schoolwork, too stressed to eat, holding off until a later event. For most, the “Freshman 15” is not a foreign term, but with eating disorders on the rise, it is time to address the culture of eating disorders on college campuses, and specifically here at Hopkins.
A recent report conducted by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) revealed that over a 13-year period, the prevalence of eating disorders increased in frequency from 23% to 32% among females and 7.9% to 25% among males at a single university. NEDA further estimates that 30 million people in the U.S. alone will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives; many eating disorders find their roots during college.
The transition to university is marked by several circumstances that put an individual at greater risk of developing an eating disorder: new independence and responsibilities; social, academic and financial pressures; a heavy workload; the desire to fit in; an abundance of food and food-related activities; changes in routine and greater access to drugs or alcohol. For many, college serves as the first occasion of making decisions about food. Facing new challenges and lacking usual support networks, students may turn to food as a coping mechanism.
In light of these challenges and without consistent support, it is no coincidence that 31.1% of college freshmen struggle with some form of disordered eating, whether it be restrictive, obsessive or excessive in nature. Further troubling is the fact that few seek out or receive help, inciting a lifelong struggle that yields physical, mental, social and emotional consequences.
Despite the recent growth of mental health awareness and dialogue, eating disorders continue to fly under the radar on college campuses. Why?
The reasoning lies in the normalization, even romanticization, of these disordered behaviors on college campuses, Hopkins included.
Conversation between students that incorporates toxic dialogue about food, eating and exercise supports a culture of disordered eating, and it is not hard to come by. Warnings about the impending “Freshman 15” place body size at the center of the first-year experience and contribute to an obsessive mindset around food and exercise that often culminates in an eating disorder. And I can almost guarantee that before going out with friends, one will mention “saving up” their calories by not eating before, either with the intention of getting drunker faster or to offset additional calories from alcohol.
Let’s recognize the act of intentionally withholding food for an extended period of time, often passed off as “getting ready for a night out,” as disordered behavior that is characteristic of anorexia and other eating disorders.
And here at Hopkins, I often hear the following: “I don’t have time to eat, I’m too busy!” And in response? We fail to point out the importance of nourishment but rather show admiration deriving from our obsession with busyness. But too often, the glorification of busyness occurs at the expense of our health, and in this case, normalizes the act of skipping meals in a way that perpetuates eating disorder culture on campus.
It is ingrained in us to compare ourselves to one another: in terms of grades and achievements, but also in terms of our habits and our bodies. Being immersed in a culture that supports the development of disordered eating behaviors is toxic, pressures us to conform to an unhealthy lifestyle and threatens the development of a mental illness with serious consequences.
So what can we do?
First, we acknowledge the existence of eating disorder culture on campus. So long as we continue to normalize and dismiss these behaviors, there can be no progress.
Once we recognize the presence of eating disorders on campus, we need to raise awareness, both for their existence but also for the diversity of sufferers. Let us remind ourselves that eating disorders do not only plague skinny white girls. Heavier people, men, people of color and queer people likewise struggle with eating disorders.
And lastly, we need to eliminate the toxic dialogue and glorification of busyness underlying eating disorder culture and replace it with a supportive foundation that lifts students and connects them with appropriate resources. Eating disorders do not have to be a life sentence; there are resources available for those struggling.
If this is you, rest assured that you are not alone in this battle. Hopkins has resources to help through the Student Health and Wellness Center and the Counseling Center. You can also contact the NEDA Helpline by calling 1-800-931-2237.
Our time here at Hopkins is short, and we all dream of accomplishing so much, here and beyond. But without proper nourishment and care for our bodies, we are limited in what we can achieve. So take this gentle reminder: Be kind to your body; it is the only one you have. There are more important parts of the college experience than the size of your jeans.
Emma Andersson is a second-year student from Madison, N.J. studying International Studies and Sociology with a minor in Environmental Studies. She is a member of Real Food at Hopkins and Compassion, Awareness and Responsible Eating for Farm Animals.