You might’ve seen the hashtag #NEDAwareness circulating on social media lately. This is because Feb. 22-28 was National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Overall, the campaign (run by the National Eating Disorders Association, or NEDA) is meant to educate the public on eating disorders, provide information on the lifesaving resources that are available to those struggling with an eating disorder and spread a message of hope and recovery. This year’s NEDAwareness Week also focused on inviting “Every Body to Have a Seat at the Table.” It’s an extra emphasis on awareness in a field where marginalized communities are underrepresented, coupled with efforts to challenge systemic biases and put the spotlight on stories from people of all backgrounds.
Campaigns like NEDAwareness Week that work towards transparency with regards to eating disorders are extremely important, especially in today’s social media-obsessed landscape. Many people face issues like these, subliminally encouraged by societal norms. According to the NEDA, approximately 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States have struggled with an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime, totaling to at least 30 million Americans facing such life threatening issues. Interestingly, a 2011 study by the American College Health Association, (as part of their National College Health Assessment) found that the percentage of college-age people with an eating disorder ranges from 8 to 17 percent. This, compared with the National Institute of Mental Health finding that 3.8 percent of teenage females and 1.5 percent of teenage males have an eating disorder, shows that eating disorders become more prevalent as people reach college. But why is this?
College brings a lot of changes to a young person’s life. The workload increases and overall structure in one’s life decreases. College students are more focused on their peers, which can lead to anxieties regarding body image and fitting in. Often, eating disorders result from the need to feel control over a stressful environment, thus food restriction, binge eating and purging or over-exercise become a way to self-medicate the stresses of college life. And if we aren’t careful, our language can fuel these maladaptive coping mechanisms.
This perfect storm of new environmental fears and pressures contributes to an overarching normalization of eating disorders in college. Without realizing it, college students can end up making unhealthy relationships with food the norm in many ways. This includes making jokes about avoiding the “freshman 15,” deciding not to eat because of the outfit you’re wearing or because you’ll get drunk quicker on an empty stomach and making others feel bad for not working out. Even simply prioritizing getting work done over eating, to the point where your first meal other than an iced coffee is at 8pm, is representative of said normalization. And while these behaviors are extremely common on a college campus, they are also incredibly harmful overall.
At the risk of sounding like a buzzkill, these seemingly small things add up very quickly. While a short joke about not eating in favor of “looking skinny” may not seem like a big deal to you, there’s no guarantee that the friend listening to you has never genuinely struggled with an eating disorder before. It’s impossible to know what everyone has been through. Therefore it’s better to avoid accidentally putting someone in an unhealthy place with mindless comments. And, I’m also not arguing against using humor as a coping mechanism. The issue begins when humor becomes a way to perpetuate the problem instead of getting help.
This normalization of eating disorders in college has a couple of easy solutions. Simple practices like educating yourself on the different types of eating disorders, avoiding destructive language and holding others accountable for their use of damaging language can all help promote a more positive relationship with food. In general, being more mindful of the impact behind your words can go a long way. And if you find yourself or a friend struggling, know there are resources available to you.