Roughly 30 million Americans will suffer from an eating disorder (ED) in their lifetime. The highest age and gender demographic this illness affects are females between the ages of 18-21. A statistic that ironically aligns with the age range of most female college students.
When you look at college culture, the fact that female college students are at the greatest risk of developing an eating disorder is not surprising. Upon entering college, society tells girls to fear gaining the “freshman 15”. A term commonly used in America to describe the weight students gain during freshman year. Moving forward, the notion of “pulling trig,” and stimulant abuse to restrict appetite are also common behavior patterns amongst college campuses.
These behavioral patterns revolving around substance abuse, toxic body image, and restrictive eating are not just incredibly common, but normalized. So much to the point where students see such behavior as usual. Rather than symptoms of an undetected ED. With EDs having the highest mortality rate of any ofter mental illness, it’s time to pull the trigger on ending the normalization of eating disorders.
What is an eating disorder?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, eating disorders are behavioral conditions characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors.
Eating disorders are also associated with distressing thoughts and emotions and can affect physical, psychological, and social functions.
Types of eating disorders include:
- anorexia nervosa
- bulimia nervosa
- binge eating disorder
- avoidant restrictive food intake
- pica disorder
- rumination disorder
People with eating disorders often have preoccupations with food, weight, or shape or have anxiety about the consequences of eating certain foods.
Typical behaviors associated with an ED include:
- Restrictive eating
- Binge eating
- Purging by vomiting
- Laxative misses
- Compulsive exercise
EDs and their link to body image
Your body does not need to fit into the mold that society has deemed “beautiful.”
To be considered beautiful, society teaches young girls that their physical appearance must align with the societal beauty standard.
The beauty standard, which is growing increasingly unattainable, typically favors those who appear young, thin, and have “perfect” features.
Social media serves as a significant factor in promoting unrealistic beauty ideals. Many people use editing apps to manipulate the appearance of their photos to meet the beauty standard on these platforms. Thus, users are left to compare themselves with a falsified version of reality.
In an article titled Social Media, Thin-Ideal, Body Dissatisfaction and Disordered Eating Attitudes: An Exploratory Analysis, the author notes:
This contradiction between what society portrays as a role model and the real body that many young women have has resulted in body concerns. Body concerns usually maintain over time and increase body dissatisfaction. This body dissatisfaction emerges because of the distortion on the body image, its perception and therefore, body concern. This dissatisfaction also plays an essential role in disordered eating attitudes since it provokes emotional and psychological distress”
Drastic ideals lead to drastic measures
Negative body image often correlates with eating disorders as many women take drastic measures to be seen as skinny. These people believe that if they controlled their weight, their appearance will improve, and therefore so will their negative belief systems. However, the exact opposite often occurs as intrusive thoughts become more persistent the longer the ED exists.
Navigating the world of college
Upon entering college, many incoming students look forward to experiencing their newfound freedom. However, apart from the excitement, this time also brings forth various challenges as students learn to navigate the adult world for the first time. As students figure out how to balance freedom with responsibility, they also face pressure to adapt to new living environments, academic standards, and social circles.
In addition to the stress and anxiety surrounding meeting these new demands, incoming students also have to worry about gaining the notorious freshman 15. Further exacerbating the body image crisis, this serves as the breeding ground for eating disorders, as many students adapt to coping mechanisms in the form of disordered eating.
“This is also a period of development in which disordered eating is likely to arise, resurface, or worsen for many young men and women. Full blown eating disorders typically begin between 18 and 21 years of age. Out from the watchful eye of parents and family, eating attitudes and behaviors can change and even become dangerous without anyone noticing.”National Eating Disorder Association
Stimulants as meal replacements
Only in the world of college would you be able to spot a person chasing their Adderall prescription with coffee and nicotine. To keep up with the demands of college, stimulants such as coffee, energy drinks, and drugs like Adderall and Vyvanse serve as students’ best friends. On paper, substances that keep you awake, focused, and away from eating seem like the answer to every college girl’s prayers. Addictive by nature, students use these substances to stay alert and as an appetite suppressant.
According to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study, full-time college students between ages 18 and 22 are twice as likely as their non-full-time college student counterparts to have used Adderall for non-medical purposes. Prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic on college campuses, with more than 4 out of 10 saying they have abused prescription stimulants.
Adderall will suppress appetite and increase the metabolism of almost anyone who takes it. However, those who have the potential to abuse it are typically biologically predisposed toward disordered eating. Adderall can bring out disordered eating behavior in someone who hasn’t dealt with that behavior before.
Drastic measures in an attempt to lose weight manifest themselves in various ways in college-aged students. One being the normalization and popularization of “pulling trig.” The phrase refers to forcing yourself to throw up after a night of drinking and serves as an instant relief hack in the college party scene. Although it is used mainly in the context of partying, the act itself is associated with EDs such as bulimia and anorexia.
In the context of eating disorders, specialists define the act of self-induced vomiting as purging. Those struggling with anorexia or bulimia often purge after meals. Despite purging and “pulling trig” being the same thing, its normality makes college students dissociate the act from being a symptom of ED.
In addition to purging, the college party scene also promotes meal skipping to get drunk faster. Young women are most likely to gravitate towards this method because it also keeps them from appearing bloated. However, not only is it bad in general to drink on an empty stomach, using it as a means to combat poor body image is also considered a symptom of ED. When it comes to body image in college, women need to prioritize giving their body the nutrients it needs over how it looks.
Although college culture normalizes drug and stimulant abuse, fear of weight gain, pulling trig, and skipping meals, such instances dangerously align with the symptoms of eating disorders. Underneath each of these examples lies the underlying motive to stay thin. Yet, college culture disguises it as normal behavior. The issue stems from the fact that society has made it normal for women to hate their bodies. Since negative body image and the desire to be thin are such typical mentalities for young women, it makes sense as to why restrictive eating behavior has become normalized.
Everyone always says college is about finding yourself. However, sometimes we get lost in trying to be something we aren’t in the process. In this case, we physically and mentally exhaust ourselves to fit into an image of beauty that was not meant for us to begin with.
Just because society has set a standard for beauty does not mean we have to identify ourselves by it. Pull the trigger on loving yourself and use these four years to find your own sense of beauty.