A Measure of Self
Students Battling Eating Disorders
Published: Thursday, February 7, 2013
Updated: Friday, February 8, 2013 01:02
Roughly 190 million Americans are either overweight or obese, prompting health professionals to declare a crisis that demands a re-examination of the nation’s relationship with food. But that is only one side of the story.
According to the Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, nearly 24 million people in the United States suffer from unhealthy eating habits at the other extreme.
“In the last year, I have lost a best friend, several friends and quite a few other acquaintances that I knew from treatment facilities. All have died from eating disorder complications,” said Cristina Richardson (COL ’16), who herself struggled with an eating disorder in elementary and high school.
“I also have at least three friends that I expect to lose soon because their bodies have shut down completely and are on the brink of death. I don’t think that people always believe the statistics about eating disorder deaths, but they are real and eating disorders do kill.”
Patterns of disordered eating coincide with the college years primarily for women — up to 18 percent of women compared to 0.4 percent of men reported history of an eating disorder by the first year of college, according to a study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. These frequencies only increase as students continue through college.
In the National College Health Assessment from spring 2012, 86.6 percent of college students reported feeling overwhelmed in the 12 months prior to taking the survey. For some students, eating disorders develop as a consequence of attempting to use control over eating as a means of coping with the anxiety and competition around them.
With these contextual patterns in mind, it comes as little surprise that up to 20 percent of Georgetown’s student body suffers from an eating disorder.
“Eating disorders are not just about food and weight. They are also about control and perfection. I equated starvation and bones with control and perfection. … With every bite of food, I felt like I was losing control and further away from perfection,” Richardson said. “Also, part of eating disorders is competition. … I was always competing with myself to go lower, and whenever the scale stayed the same or rose, the pain was too much.”
Results from the most recent NCHA indicated that 1.5 percent of the Georgetown student population reported experiencing anorexia and 2.1 percent bulimia in the last 12 months. According to Carol Day, a registered nurse and director of Health Education Services, the real numbers today are closer to around 6 to 6.5 percent, but not even these numbers account for the sizable student population struggling with other types of eating disorders.
“My professional guesstimate is about 15 to 20 percent, which is probably conservative,” Day said.
For those previously suffering with eating disorders, coming to Georgetown can stall their recovery if external pressures on campus trigger a return to unhealthy behavior.
“Georgetown influences people [who] are trying to recover in a negative way,” Day said.
A female student, who will be referred to as Amy for the sake of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, agreed with Day’s statement.
“When I came to Georgetown I wasn’t too worried about anything triggering me, as I felt I was in a really good place mentally,” said Amy, who is recovering from an eating disorder. “However, there are lots of things that if I weren’t secure in my health would be troubling.”
For Caroline Joyce (NHS ’15), the combination of a past experience with an eating disorder and fear of the “freshman 15” fostered a negative relationship with food her first year on campus.
“The [types] of people [who] come in are already susceptible to it,” Joyce said. “Everyone’s attitude here about it just fosters that.”
Joyce’s experiences with an eating disorder began as a freshman in high school.
“I saw that my sister had written down everything she had eaten in a notebook. As soon as I saw my sister’s notebook, it was game over.”
After having struggled in high school, transitioning to Georgetown for Joyce prompted the continuation of a poor mentality toward eating. In addition to obsessing over food consumption, those with eating disorders often supplement their attempts to be thin through other unhealthy behaviors, including restricting food intake until a certain time in the day and engaging in excessive exercise.
Richardson even resorted to over-the-counter “solutions.”
“I would purge to get rid of the food and get rid of some of the feelings of hatred [from binge eating]. … Purging, even to the sight of blood, made things a little better. In addition to throwing up, I abused a number of over the counter medications to aid in the purging process. I had a turning point one night when I almost suffered a heart attack and stroke from the severe electrolyte imbalance I had from a massive laxative overdose and ipecac abuse. However, like most people with eating disorders, this wasn’t enough to stop me. The fear and hatred of eating was too much. It was so bad that suicide often seemed like a better solution than to continue trapped in the cycle of bulimia.”