Psychology

When disordered eating permeates college culture

When disordered eating permeates college culture
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Source: Jennifer Burk/Unsplash, Creative Commons

Co-authored by Llewellyn Boggs and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.

About 40 percent of college and university freshmen struggle with eating disorders, 80 percent of whom are women. Its culture permeates student life, it is both subtle and increasingly normalized, and is prevalent in environments where thinness is idealized, praised and pursued.

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Tamar Spilberg, a therapist and social worker in Toronto, distinguishes between eating disorders and eating disorders. Spilberg explains that an eating disorder is a mental health problem, while an eating disorder is more influenced by trends and social media. Typically, individuals with an eating disorder have strong self-esteem and are not as strongly influenced by societal norms or opinions as a person with an eating disorder. People with eating disorders often have to deal with control problems and other psychological problems.

The underlying embarrassment surrounding the “Freshman 15” (the extra 15 pounds new students would often put on) has affected the way students interact with each other and their eating habits. The everyday language around weight and shape among students contributes to a culture where if you don’t strive for thinness you are considered lazy. Examples of this everyday culture of shame include mentioning how little a person has eaten because of hard work, using coffee as a meal replacement, and partially abstaining from meals to ease inebriation.

Spilberg describes how eating disorders and eating disorders manifest themselves in the post-secondary environment. She believes the phenomenon is more dangerous on college campuses because parents aren’t there to help students resist the new standards they are experiencing. Beginning in high school, teens and young adults are heavily influenced by their peers, who in turn are influenced by social media and trends. In university settings, these young adults are surrounded by their peers, experience independence for the first time, are under great pressure for academic achievement and social success, and are easily influenced by social norms. It creates the perfect storm.

In this way, students can be encouraged by peers to engage in unhealthy behavior. Hustle culture, a modern lifestyle in which people try to fill every minute of their day with work, is a related problem. Despite the destructive effect it has on mental health, many young adults identify with the busy culture and promote overtime with little to no downtime. Like a disordered food culture, the busy culture associates a lack of self-care with success, creating serious problems for students.

Allana Blumberg, a fitness and lifestyle micro-influencer, describes her own personal experience during college with peer-influenced eating disorders. She explains that it is something that is very quiet and that many people are unaware. In Allana’s experience, disordered eating is kind of… norm and accepted as Okay Under students. It often happens around clubs and parties, or when there is a drinking event. It made her not want to eat proper meals beforehand for fear of doesn’t look skinny enough or consuming too many calories next to the alcohol. “It made me constantly body check, compare myself to others or what I looked like in high school versus college.”

Allana explains how she was able to free herself from the disordered food culture she encountered in college. Unfortunately, it was necessary for her to leave the campus environment and return home after transferring to another school. “I don’t know if I would have gotten out of that mindset and culture if I had stayed on campus.”

Copyright Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.

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