LSA senior Kylie Miller is a resident advisor, a member of the Ballroom Dance Team and has a supportive group of friends. Miller also suffers from disordered eating. She has spent up to two dozen nights sitting in the bathroom for hours at a time, battling with herself, deciding whether or not to purge after a binge.
Jenna, an LSA freshman, who asked not to be identified with her last name, doesn’t have a group of friends in Ann Arbor. She’s quiet, and spends most of her time getting ahead on homework. Jenna has suffered from anorexia since she was 14 years old. She currently seeks the support of a nutritionist and a therapist twice a week.
I met both students after they performed at the Body Monologues, a free event hosted by University Health Service and Body-Peace Corps once a year that provides a platform for members of the University community to share their experiences with their bodies and the way they view them.
On the evening of Feb. 4, Mendelssohn Theater, which seats more than 600 people, was almost at capacity. For two hours, students and people in the University community shared their experiences with being bullied about their weight in school, obsessive thoughts about food, self-harm, abuse and more. Some performances were humorous, others raw and emotional. All of the performances, however, displayed vulnerability and openness on the part of speakers, with many noting that this was their first time sharing their personal experiences with anyone. The audience’s response ranged from cheers to gasps to shared tears in the bathroom after the performance. The diversity of experiences and reactions were vast, but what united them was the noticeable effect they had on everyone in attendance. Audience members and performers alike covered their mouths in horror at some stories while others elicited laughter.
Miller hid her struggles with her weight and eating habits from her family and friends until the Body Monologues, when she decided to publicly share her story. For Jenna, the Monologues was also her first time admitting to anyone besides her family that she has suffered from anorexia for upward of four years.
When exploring the climate of eating disorders at the University, there seems to be a disconnect between the silent dialogue on those who suffer from eating disorders, compared to the open environment of the Body Monologues. According to a 2010 survey of college counselors and other professionals by the Eating Disorders Recovery Center, there are numerous reasons why college students suffering from disordered eating do not seek treatment. About 28 percent were embarrassed to ask for professional help, 48 percent did not know they had an eating disorder, and 82 percent were simply unwilling to find treatment.
This prompts the question: Why are some students brave enough to get up on stage and discuss their struggles on eating with an audience of strangers, but aren’t comfortable enough to tell their friends and seek out treatment?
Just college or cause for concern?
According to an article on MiTalk, an online mental health resource for ‘U’ students, an estimated 25 to 31 percent of students on the University of Michigan’s campus suffer from disordered eating, which encompasses a wide range of abnormal eating patterns — such as over-exercising to compensate for eating too much, or feeling guilty when eating.
When Miller started college in the fall of 2010, she was worried about gaining the Freshman 15, the myth of first-year weight gain. She started counting every calorie that went into her body. This habit quickly evolved into an obsession.
She lost 20 pounds during freshman year, and her new social network only knew “Kylie-minus-20-pounds,” she said.
“They didn’t see me as a cow, like kids in high school did. But I still thought of myself as that,” Miller said. “There was this weird disjunction. Even though they were super supportive in a lot of ways, I didn’t talk about all the really negative self-thoughts.”
Miller’s friends were also concerned with eating healthy, too. But this isn’t always the case, especially in college when eating habits are largely determined by social situations and sobriety level, Andrea Lawson, the assistant director of Clinical Services at the Counseling and Psychological Services and the coordinator of Eating and Body Image Concerns, said.
“A lot of challenges surrounding college students’ mental health are discerning what’s an issue and what’s cultural, or what’s part of a typical student’s life,” Lawson said.
For some students, eating an entire pizza at 2 a.m. on a Saturday is normal behavior. Binge eating disorder is characterized by uncontrollable and excessive eating without a purge, often leading to being overweight or obesity. Lawson said those in her profession are currently seeing many people with binge-eating disorder, which affects men just as frequently as it does women.
According to a 2012 survey of 10,000 University of Michigan students, about 20 percent of both men and women are binging once a week or more.
For people like Miller, who suffers from a wide range of disordered eating habits, binge eating results in overwhelming feelings of guilt and self-hatred, prompting her to turn to purging — forced vomiting.
“One time I ate a whole medium pizza, and after eating only salads and fruit, you feel terrible.” Miller then described how, following a binge, she would then contemplate for an hour or more whether or not she should purge.
“For the most part, I’ve been able to control it more than I know a lot of people who struggle with it. I would battle with myself internally. ‘Do it, no, don’t do it. Do it.’ Sometimes one would win, sometimes the other would win,” Miller said.
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Nearly 10 percent of female students at the University purge in some way.
“Because (the way I view my body) is an internal problem, it won’t change until I change it. Things won’t actually change for me until I can change them myself. It’s a cycle of negative self-thought,” Miller said.
External factors, such as friends’ eating habits and triggering comments, caused Miller to internalize her problems with body image and eating habits.
“My family is amazing and I have a group of super supportive friends, which I think has made my experience easier in a lot of ways. But because it’s an internal problem, it won’t change until I change it,” she said.
Lawson said she increasingly sees eating disorders that don’t fit neatly within the criteria for anorexia or bulimia. Students who exhibit symptoms may not be entirely consistent with defined thresholds of disorders.
In effect, this means that students can have difficulty recognizing and categorizing their symptoms, making it even more difficult to seek help.
A complicated battle
Jenna, on the other hand, cannot identify specific reasons why she might have developed an eating disorder at age 14. During the summer before her sophomore year of high school, she restricted her diet to fruits and yogurt, and never once binged or purged.
Her parents took her to rehab and she was told she would never eat another meal alone again. The summer before she began college, she was at her highest weight and excited to begin her time at college. But, she noted that being at the University has had a negative effect on her struggle with anorexia.
Jenna, too, was nervous about the Freshman 15, and small portions in the cafeteria added stress to the equation.
“If I would go up to get more, (people working in the cafeteria) would look at me funny and I would think they were judging me,” she said.
Jenna doesn’t feel like she’s found a group or community here. Perceived judgment and feelings of isolation dominate her thoughts. Her family has suggested taking time off of school to recover.
“College is not the best when you’re struggling with anything. I get pretty lonely which brings on depression, which brings on bad eating. It all goes downhill from there.”
Jenna is addicted to not eating. She also suffers from anxiety and depression, taking 10 pills everyday to fight various forms of mental illnesses — not uncommon for those struggling with an eating disorder. According to a University Study of Habits, Attitudes, and Perceptions around Eating survey conducted in 2012, 29 percent of women and 27 percent of men at the University who screen positive for an eating disorder also screen positive for depression. Additionally, 49 percent of women and 31 percent of men who screen positive for an eating disorder also screen positive for anxiety. This makes discussing — and treating — eating disorders very difficult.
“With the eating disorder came depression and anxiety, so it goes from fighting one thing to fighting many (things), which isn’t easy,” Jenna said. “When my depression is the worst, my eating is the worst.”
While focusing on treating one illness, she feels like all other challenges have to go on the back-burner. “You can’t really fight everything at once.”
Jenna is a self-described perfectionist who spends most of her time doing her homework weeks ahead of time.
According to Lawson, this is a trait often reflected in students at competitive universities. “Perfectionism is something we see in students with eating disorders but that’s also something we see with students all around the University of Michigan,” says Lawson. “There’s quite a bit of perfectionism going on, and I think there’s specific attention to social settings and dynamics when students eat with other people.”
Perfectionism is considered a marker of genetic risk factors for susceptibility to an eating disorder. Personality traits and mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression can make it difficult for these students to even articulate what they’re experiencing, let alone seek help.
A (silent) campus community
For many incoming students at the University, fears about gaining the Freshman 15 dominate their thoughts.
Upon arrival to the University, Jenna felt this pressure immediately. “I was really scared about the Freshman 15 and everyone makes comments (about calories) when they’re in the dining hall,” she said.
A majority of females — and about 30 percent of males — come to the University worried about gaining the Freshman 15, according to the 2012 U-SHAPE survey.
This can often lead into extreme calorie counting, a behavior which is amplified in the dining hall setting. After all, the University of Michigan Student Life and Housing posts all nutrition labels online, as well as listing them on paper at the dining hall. This can be both enabling and helpful for students watching their weight.
For Miller, calorie counts were helpful when she was dieting. “Depending on the cycle I was in, calorie counting was great. I could see exactly what I was putting in my body,” she said.
However, they were also a terrifying reminder of exactly how many calories she was putting into her body when she binged.
“Mentally it’s tough, it’s like ‘What did you just do, you ate 3,000 calories in one sitting?’” Miller said.
Julie Stocks, a dietitian at the Nutrition Clinic at University Health Service, echoed this sentiment.
“When it comes from a disordered eating lens, (calorie counts) are a very bad thing,” Stocks said. “I think in and of itself it’s harmless, it just depends what lens you look at it through. It’s our obligation to keep awareness high, to keep those lens opens.”
Universities like Harvard College removed index cards detailing nutritional information in their dining halls after students and parents raised concerns that clearly-displayed calorie counts could cause or worsen eating disorders. The calorie counts are still displayed in kiosks in the dining halls and online.
What Jenna found surprising at the University of Michigan is the lack of conversation around the topic. “I wish the University thought more about what they were doing when they put nutritional facts out there or made their portion sizes really small. I wish they were more considerate. (Eating disorders) are not talked about. It could honestly just incorporate a healthy eating presentation into orientation.”
Body-Peace Corps, a student group on campus, is currently attempting to combat the wall of silence around eating disorders. According to group leaders, the Body-Peace Corps’ mission is to build a community where people can discuss their body issues, free from stigma and discrimination. The group offers peer-facilitated workshops for residence halls and living communities, and also hosts campus events to raise awareness.
But even LSA sophomore Brianna Mayer, Body-Peace Corps executive board member, acknowledges that the group faces limitations.
“A lot of our events will attract people who have experiences (with eating disorders) and know what we’re talking about,” Mayer said. “We’re having a hard time reaching out to the general student body that may not have any knowledge of these issues whatsoever. So I think the University, Body-Peace Corps, and other groups need to find a way to reach the general student body.”
According to the U-SHAPE survey, 51 percent of students at the University know at least one student who has eating or body image problems.
The Body Monologues is, in a way, a step toward recovery for many students. Miller found telling their story to their friends, family, and a large audience, to be a beneficial undertaking.
“I worked through a lot of things as I wrote my monologue. It was a cathartic experience for me to come up with the piece,” Miller said.
By sharing their internal experiences on eating with the audience, Body Monologues performers conveyed their vulnerability. This kind of shared vulnerability is, perhaps, the start of a much needed, campus-wide conversation.
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