Starvation by any other name: How spring break diet culture enables disordered eating

Sunday, January 31, 2021 - 12:53pm

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Illustration by Shuchen Wei

Content warning: This piece contains descriptions of eating disorders.

My favorite book begins by painting a vivid image of frozen, foggy city streets, and as piercing gusts of wind push the temperature outside my window into the single-digits, I can’t help but put forth my version of the same: it is damn cold outside. It was damn cold yesterday, it will be damn cold tomorrow and it is going to be damn cold for the foreseeable future.

Bleak is certainly the word that seems most fitting. 

It is the frigid heart of Michigan winter, and when every day is this gray and this gloomy, who among us can be blamed for wanting to escape to sunny sands and warm beaches?

Spring break trips seem to be the solution. 

Group spring break trips targeted specifically towards college students (and especially towards students who participate in Greek life) market themselves as an opportunity to do just that. Companies such as JusCollege and EF Ultimate Break offer trips that they say are the ultimate college travel experience: a picture-perfect spring break, with nothing to coordinate — just sign up, and you and your friends are all set to head off to places like Miami, Puerto Vallarta or Cabo San Lucas.

These trips are marketed specifically to college students as an opportunity to go on spring break with everyone they know — not just one or two friend groups, but entire social circles, entire organizations; not just ten or even twenty people, but hundreds of people. 

It may sound like the ideal setup, but it’s also a daunting situation to walk into.

I know it would be for me. 

I remember the first time I felt self-conscious about my body. It was the end of fifth grade, and my elementary school was throwing the graduating class the annual pool party. I knew I couldn’t wear the Speedos I wore to swim practice, so my mom and I went bathing suit shopping at Gap Kids, and I came home with a purple-and-teal-striped bikini and a yellow one-piece with sunflowers on it — that way I could have options, my mom said. 

In the store, I really could have gone either way about which suit to wear to the pool party. But I got home and started to worry about which one to wear. I ended up going with the one-piece. I told my mom it was because I was too pale for the bikini, and that I’d have to work on my tan before I could wear it around my friends.

That wasn’t the truth.

The truth was that, at 11 years old, I was already self-conscious about the way my body would look in a bikini. And that was just my fifth-grade pool party — I can count on one hand the people who were there that I’m still close to. 

But hitting the beach in roughly the same amount of fabric as that yellow one-piece on this side of the growth spurt? With everyone I know at this university — the guy I like, the girls I hope will be friends for life and everyone they know here, too — looking at me? 

As my fifth-grade self would have put it, you’d have an easier time teaching London Tipton how to drive. The PRNDL? Sure, no problem. But a beach filled with people whose validation I want so, so badly? Excuse me, I’m just going to look for Miley Cyrus in this room that Hannah Montana is in. 

I knew I wasn’t alone in this sentiment. I spoke about these types of experiences via Zoom with several women who went on spring break trips similar to those aforementioned. The women’s names have been changed (denoted with asterisks) to protect their anonymity in order to allow them to speak about this sensitive issue freely. 

I spoke with Heather*, an LSA senior who went on group spring break trips to Miami and Cabo her freshman and sophomore years, about her experience. 

“It was a lot — being around everyone we knew for those four days in just a bikini,” Heather said. “Then there’s the fact that it was going to be remembered for so long because of the pictures, and because people judge you on how you look. Looking back, it was so stupid, but it was such a thing.”

Lisa*, another LSA senior, also experienced the social pressure that these spring break trips can create, saying that it can be easy to fall into self-comparison with everyone else on the trip.

“It was intimidating knowing that we were spending four days in this environment,” she said. “Being at the darties (day parties), and being by the pool, knowing that there were gonna be girls who were gonna be so skinny, and then me — I wasn’t comfortable taking my sarong off. It was just an intimidating atmosphere, knowing that we would be in bikinis for five days straight.”

But spring break isn’t supposed to be intimidating; it’s supposed to be fun. More specifically, it’s supposed to be the “time of your life,” and when real life isn’t matching up to that perfect picture, it’s incredibly anxiety-inducing. 

Advertisements like this one end up perpetuating that sort of stress, presenting these spring break trips as a chance to have the best time ever — a chance, in other words, to “peak.” With entire social circles on one trip, by one pool, at one party, spring break can become an opportunity to take control of your social life. The trip provides opportunities that a standard house party or tailgate might not. 

Studies show that a desire for control can play a major role in the development of eating disorders. And when spring break seems more and more like the perfect opportunity to take control of your social life, combined with a somewhat universal feeling of social pressure, maybe it should be less surprising that many women develop disordered eating habits in the weeks leading up to the trip. 

Kendrin Sonneville, a professor in the University of Michigan School of Public Health, explained this phenomenon in a Zoom call with me.

“The college years are a time of epidemiologic vulnerability — that is, it’s a time where people are more likely to experience onset of disordered eating or full-syndrome eating disorders,” Sonneville said. “People who are already worried about how they look, or people who are already intending to do a spring break trip, they’re going to see those images (in advertisements) and think, ‘Oh gosh I really have to take my weight and shape control activities more seriously, I have to up the ante, I have to be more extreme.’”

It’s important to note that disordered eating is not the same as an eating disorder. Disordered eating behaviors are defined by the National Institutes of Health as eating patterns that are abnormal, but not to the extent that would warrant diagnosis of a full-syndrome eating disorder. Examples of these habits include use of diet pills, skipping or limiting meals, fasting and self-induced vomiting. In other words, these can be symptoms of eating disorders but at a lower frequency. Disordered eating can also escalate into a full-syndrome disorder, according to the NIH

These disordered eating behaviors can become common in the build-up to the spring break trip itself, Lisa says. 

“I started eating really healthy, like for lunch I would just have some tuna and some cucumbers and when we went out, we would binge, because we were so hungry and we had starved ourselves all day,” said Lisa. “Horribly, the week before (sophomore spring break), I got this laxative tea and drank that and took a laxative. I’d never taken a laxative before, but I just wanted to look good, and that was my experience. Constantly, it was something I was thinking about.”

The group nature of the trips can also be a factor in both initiating and perpetuating these behaviors. Many of the women’s friend groups live together and eat together, so peer pressure becomes palpable, said Heather.

“Living with other girls who were all going through the same thing, it was a constant, constant conversation,” she said. “It just leads to a really toxic environment, because if you see other people only eating salads, and you want to have a burger or pasta or something, you think it’s wrong. So even if it was just a couple people who were really vocal about it, everyone’s actions spoke loudly.”

Some groups even go beyond just that atmospheric pressure and commit to losing the weight together. It can create a sense of group accountability that can be very persistent, Traci Carson, who finished her Doctorate in Epidemiology through the Public Health School last year with a research focus on eating disorders, told me over Zoom. The constant conversation around body image only adds to this, she says.

“The group thing can kick in, of ‘We’re all gonna do this together and hold each other accountable,’” Carson said. “So much of our culture revolves around talking about our bodies and talking about other people’s bodies and making comments about other people’s bodies, especially in college.”

Carson also stressed that seemingly innocuous or complimentary comments on social media, which often becomes flooded with spring break photos once classes get out, can encourage women who are already engaging in harmful eating habits to continue on that pathway.

“You see it all the time,” Carson said. “A woman will post a photo of herself and the comments section will be almost like making fun of her how small she is or how skinny she is in a way that’s intended to boost her ego and intended to make her feel good. But if that woman is struggling or on the verge of struggling with restrictive eating and eating disorders, it can just reinforce that she’s doing the right thing and exacerbate those behaviors because she’s getting those positive feedback.” 

Because of this reinforcement, comments such as “omg FIRE”, “insane” and “so hot” can lead to a nasty cycle of more and more dieting and eating restriction in pursuit of those compliments.

“Those comments are so harmful, and could end up contributing to a very long period of getting stuck in these patterns of restrictive eating and loving that positive reinforcement,” said Carson. 

The self-comparison facilitated by social media can also lead women towards more restrictive eating behaviors. Hayley Friedman, an LSA junior in recovery from anorexia nervosa, spoke to me about this very concept over Zoom. The availability of smiling, dancing images of perceived cooler girls having the time of their lives on similar trips, just a few clicks away — they’re too easy to find and too easy to compare yourself to.

“That was something that I struggled with for a really long time,” Friedman said. “I would constantly see pretty, skinny girls … and I remember especially in high school taking pictures with friends or even just seeing pictures on social media, and just being like ‘Oh my gosh I wish I looked like that’ or ‘How did she do that’ or ‘Whoa, those abs.’”

Most people know that social media posts can sometimes be heavily edited and filtered, and that the people in the photos may try to suck in, flex and pose the exact right way in order for their body to appear more ideal for the photo. Still, though, as these techniques become increasingly subtle and convincing, it can be harder and harder to separate these images from reality, Friedman explained.

“That was definitely a really big struggle for me — sometimes it even still is,” Friedman said. “I’ll see a photo — especially bathing suit pictures feel like the be-all, end all, and it makes it really difficult to see someone’s picture-perfect photograph of them posed in the exact right position, flexing, whatever it may be, and then you’re like ‘Oh my gosh, they look like that always, and I don’t look like that.’ There’s such a disconnect.” 

And spring break is when I feel it that disconnect the most, because my friends are really pretty, okay, and it’s the one week of the year when many are posting those photos at the same time.

The environment that spring break can create on social media around these trips can increase the pressure to look a certain way, especially in pictures, said Sandy*, a Music & Theatre senior over Zoom. Sandy went on two group trips, one sophomore year and one junior year, during her time at school. 

“We all compare ourselves to each other when we see those pictures,” Sandy said. “I knew people who were like, ‘We need to work out every day so we can post pictures and look good,’ and I knew she was comparing herself to other people.” 

All of these factors combined — the trip “everyone’s” going on, the photos “everyone’s” going to be posting, the opportunity to take control of the social situation — essentially create a pressure-cooker in the weeks leading up to the trip. As the departure date gets closer, the temperature inches ever-higher and girls start to turn to increasingly harmful measures to achieve their “body goals,” Lisa said.

It involves a lot of workouts — “A lot of girls, including myself, we got Ross gym memberships, and you’d go every day and see everyone there,” Lisa explained — and not a lot of calories. 

Heather recalls seeing friends replace everything possible with limited “healthier” options. Pancakes and French toast at brunch are replaced with fruit and yogurt. Pasta and tacos are replaced by salads at the dinner table. At pregames for parties, lemonade and fruit punch chasers are replaced with lime wedges. Late-night cheesy bread from Pizza House and wings from Mr. Spot’s are replaced with carrots and celery. 

And as things get more intense, she said, even those “healthier” options get replaced by nothing at all. 

But these changes in diet actually result in the opposite of their desired effect, Dr. Terrill Bravender, the chief of adolescent medicine and director of the eating disorder center at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, said over Zoom.

 “The first thing is that your body responds by going into what we think of as starvation mode, meaning it starts to metabolize itself,” Bravender explained. “The first step in doing that, physiologically, is not to burn fat, it’s actually to burn protein, and so if we go for a prolonged period without taking any external nutrition in, the first reaction of our body is that we metabolize our muscles. That’s not exactly the intention that most people have when they go on a crash diet.”

If the dieting continues, it can cause a wide variety of issues, Bravender said. These can include slowed brain function, decreased heart rate and blood pressure, weakened cardiovascular health, a range of gastrointestinal issues and lower immune system functioning. Additionally, people who are underweight have quicker and stronger reactions to alcohol and can experience dizziness, nausea and fainting, especially in warm, and/or crowded situations — instances which are common occurrences during spring break. 

Even then, though, disordered eating habits and eating disorders are incredibly difficult to break out of. Eating disorders almost always require treatment which can be very difficult to obtain, and disordered eating can also be a very tough habit to break.

“There can be innumerable problems,” Bravender said. “The risks can often be self-perpetuating, so people can get into disordered habits that are very, very difficult to change … There’s a horrible, horrible old saying that’s been around for decades about ‘Nothing tastes as good as thin feels,’ and that’s just awful. One of the terrible traps that eating disorders put people in is that the eating disorder is never satisfied, people never feel thin enough, on and on until they end up in the hospital. There is that kind of sense of a reward in the future where I can put up with feeling terrible now for this reward later. The sad thing is that that reward is never going to come.”

I’ve seen that firsthand. Seen girls I’ve thought are beautiful — scratch that, girls I’ve known are beautiful — starve themselves for that reward. Seen girls I’ve looked up to struggle with eating disorders for that reward. Seen some of my best friends beyond upset with themselves because they can’t seem to get that reward. 

It’s devastating.

There’s nothing I can do about it, especially because I’m lucky enough not to have struggled with these issues myself. But damn it, it hurts watching my favorite people go through this. It hurts knowing that it’s not going to change. It hurts knowing that my younger sister will feel the same pressure, that one day, if I have a daughter, she’ll feel it, too. It hurts knowing that this time of year will always feel at least a little bit like this. 

Bleak.

If you or someone you know is struggling or may be struggling with eating disorders and/or disordered eating, please contact one of the following resources for help:

National Eating Disorders Association

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

University of Michigan Eating Disorder Resources

Update: This article has been changed to remove generalizations about the amount of editing of all/most photos online.