Infograph by Hannah Almsted
At the beginning of her freshman year, Jane (named changed for anonymity) began an intense fitness regime that would rival even the most elite athletes. From twice-a-day workouts to a strict diet full of lean protein and no carbs, you might think she was training for something — and she was: a better version of herself.
This was a new routine for Jane. She grew up with no preconceived notions of ideal body weight or a perfect size and shape. But when she came to college for her freshman year, that all changed.
“I worked out before my classes in the morning, then again after they all ended. I became obsessed with counting calories too, eating less than 1,000 calories a day and doing workouts: high-intensity cardio, spinning, weight lifting and half-marathon training,” Jane said. “I never told anyone how much I worked out or how little I ate. Instead I just accepted the compliments, like ‘Wow, you look great!’ and kept doing what I had been.”
It was not until Jane went home for winter break that she began to realize her eating and exercising habits during the first semester had gone too far.
“When my parents saw me, they almost didn’t recognize me,” she said. “The sheer shock on their face was enough to wake me up from the habits I had developed. I was seeing results so quickly that I just got wrapped up in it all. I had unknowingly fallen into an unhealthy eating disorder without ever even/ realizing it.”
The normalization of disordered eating habits has left college students especially vulnerable to developing body image issues and eating disorders. More than 25 percent of all college students struggle with an eating disorder, a 5 percent increase since 2008, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
While the exact cause of the increase is unknown, freshman Haley Smart, who follows a strict gluten-free diet, said she thinks it might have something to do with the pressure college students feel from their peers.
“I think it’s just that disordered eating habits have become so normalized — just seemingly everyone is on some sort of strict diet, and when your friends are on a diet, subconsciously you feel as though you should be on some sort of diet, too,” Smart said. “The pressure to have the perfect body is such a thing and is a normal topic of conversation, and I think most people don’t even realize that their habits are anything out of the ordinary.”
Ninety-one percent of college-aged students said they have or have heavily considered dieting, according to a June 28, 2011 article by OnlineUniversities.
Counseling Center Psychologist Shelle Welty said perhaps the ideals of seeing quick results creates a dieting cycle of restricting food for weight loss, then binging afterwards.
“I think that college women in particular have become accustomed to the idea of short-term restricting for quick weight loss,” Welty said. “‘Cheat days’ are then a common response to such dieting, encouraging a pattern of restricting and binging. It seems that these are pretty common and accepted behaviors on campus.”
Sophomore Maddi Hassell said one of the reasons the issue of disordered eating is so prominent among Pepperdine students is the location of the campus.
“Pepperdine fosters a culture that emphasizes looks,” Hassell said. “Whether that comes from the year-long bikini-body pressures of Malibu or the ideals of Southern California in general, there is a pressure to eat right, work out and look good. Being [from] out of state [Oklahoma], these societal pressures come as a shock. As someone who has always lived in the Midwest, eating is something that brings family and friends together. It’s an important part of daily lives, unlike here. Disordered eating habits are a norm here.”
Disordered eating has typically been thought of as an issue among women, but a growing number of college-aged men exhibiting unhealthy eating behaviors. Twenty-five percent of normal-weight male college students view themselves as underweight, 68 percent say they think they have too little muscle, and 90 percent say they exercise only to bulk up, according to The National Eating Disorder Association.
Freshman Houston Wilson said he agrees that the issue of disordered eating habits is not limited to women and is fairly common among men, whether they realize it or not.
“I know a lot of guys who are really focused on gaining weight — eating lean protein and taking a bunch of supplements, but I do think that sometimes they take it too the extreme without even realizing it,” Wilson said. “It’s not so much wanting to lose weight, which is traditionally associated with an eating disorder, but really will just go to any extreme in order to bulk up or achieve a certain muscular build.”
Pepperdine offers many avenues for students struggling with eating disorders, including the Counseling Center, the Health and Wellness Center and student-led awareness meetings, but Hassell said perhaps the issue is not the resources available to those who are aware of disordered eating habits, but instead lack of awareness to those who do not realize they have such problem.
“The majority of students can casually say, ‘I haven’t eaten all day,’ and no one will bat an eye,” Hassell said. “The Pepperdine campus is a loving community, but the stigma behind eating disorders needs to be changed. The problem lies within the distinction of what was once a severe health concern, to what has now become a trendy diet of sorts. If people were more educated, open and understanding that disordered habits have become too normalized, then the problem could be handled in a much more effective way.”
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