The Reality of Having an Eating Disorder in College

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For a lot of people, food ties to emotions—when you’re happy, you eat; when you’re sad, you eat; and when you want to celebrate, you eat. So it makes perfect sense for college students to mourn the loss of their GPAs by drowning their sorrows in chocolate milkshakes. However, sometimes our relationships with food are a bit more complicated.

My battle with Anorexia Nervosa began when I was 13 and the disease has stayed with ever since. As a high school senior, the thought of going to away to a university terrified me since no one would be around to make sure I ate normally and safely. Let me be clear, eating disorders are not about food, but food is the outlet for the mental illness to manifest itself. You satiate the need for control by controlling what you eat; the food itself is not the problem.

Eating disorders, like all other forms of mental illness, are unique to each individual. There is no universal experience—eating disorders are formed and influenced due to a multitude of factors. Unfortunately, college is prime time to develop an eating disorder because they grow out of a desire for control. Experiencing a big transitions in life, like going to college, can trigger disordered eating habits.

At the start of college, you’re thrown into a new and unfamiliar environment away from the comfort of home and parental supervision. Freshmen suddenly get a lot more independence and responsibility. Psychologist Dr. Kathleen Lambird said a major change in food and exercise is one of the most common transitions students face when entering college. Whatever habits a student has at home, like the food they used to prepare or the sports they used to play, often change in college.

These transitions, combined with a different academic structure, new social circles and increased pressures can be extremely overwhelming. Sometimes the brain will try to compensate for this apprehension by finding something to control. Thus, an eating disorder is born. “I had so many expectations for what school was going to be like. But when those expectations weren’t met, that’s when the stress began to worsen,” UCLA senior Sara Andersson said.

College also adds pressure onto students. Academically, competitive environments can make students feel like they’re never going to be good enough, because someone always does better than you, your GPA isn’t high enough for medical school or you didn’t get that internship you wanted. Students can feel like they have too much to do in a very specific time constraint to complete all their goals. “As students, we know our time is limited and we want to make the most of our time and we want to build our selves to succeed outside,” Andersson said. “If you continue to do things you don’t want for yourself, you’re not going to be happy with yourself.”

For many students, college is the final leg of their education—all that’s left is adulthood. Thus, the four years in college start a pressure cooker of expectations and responsibility. Being unhappy with where your life is going but being unable to change it, or feeling like you’re fulfilling a future that you didn’t have a choice in (i.e. parental pressure) can push people to seek control in other areas of life. And the body seems like the perfect candidate for control since you have sole ownership over your body. So when the world starts crashing down without your permission, your physical appearance can feel like the only choice you have left.

In her poem “When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny,” Blythe Baird said, “If you are not recovering you are dying.” Recovering from an eating disorder isn’t like recovering from alcoholism or drug abuse—food is a necessary part of life, which means you have to look your disease in the face at least three times a day. You can’t simply avoid it, which makes the recovery process a daily struggle.

Then, add in college food culture. How do you get a student to go to a fundraiser or club meeting? Free food. Tailgating, partying, club events and just hanging out with friends are an opportunity to eat and drink. Many people recovering from eating disorders feel uncomfortable eating around others, yet in social situations can be singled out for not partaking in food. It becomes a balancing act of control, figuring out how to participate in the social culture at college centered around food, while also living with the isolating feeling that comes with an eating disorder.

However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Although it takes time, recovery is possible. Andersson said one of the most enlightening experiences she had was when she placed herself in a body-positive community. “Seeing people being comfortable in their own bodies made me feel comfortable in my own body,” Andersson said. Self-care may be difficult, but surrounding yourself with people who love and support you makes the process easier.

College gives you the opportunity to meet new people every day, so there’s definitely someone out there that understands your struggle. Recovery often involves managing eating in different social situations so that it’s not limiting according to Dr. Lambird. Another important step in recovery is questioning societal standards: “Question the thin ideal,” Dr. Lambird said. “It’s so pervasive in society that we assume being a certain size or shape is essential to happiness in life.” Unlearning harmful social ideals about your body is difficult to do, but learning to love yourself is well worth the trouble. After all, you are only given one body, so be aware of the care you need, and treat yourself the way you would want to treat others—with kindness and respect.

Hayley is a 3rd year English Major/Art History Minor at the University of California, Los Angeles. She enjoys baking banana bread, obsessing over Kpop boy bands, and having heated debates about the Oxford comma.

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