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Health & Wellness

Lovin’ the Body You’re In

Body image, eating disorders panel discussion tomorrow at Thurman Center


Heather says she’s always had a complicated relationship with food and body image. By the time she was a high school freshman, she had admitted to a counselor that she was binging and purging. At the counselor’s urging, she told her parents, but the cycle accelerated sophomore year. Friends, she recalls, would fall silent when she returned from the bathroom after purging. By junior year, Heather had signed on with a personal trainer, who helped her shave an unhealthy 30 pounds in three months. She felt herself spinning out of control, but was unable to stop.

Then Heather, a BU freshman who asked BU Today not to use her real name, says she hit “rock bottom.” At the time, she was dog-sitting for family friends in an empty house—with a full pantry. She shoved fistfuls of food into her mouth. When she tried to vomit it up, nothing happened, so she ate even more. Afterwards, she fell to the bathroom floor and cried hysterically.

One thought rang through her head: “I don’t want to feel like this anymore.”

Unfortunately, Heather is not alone in her struggle. Next to depression, eating disorders are the most common self-reported psychiatric diagnosis among college students, according to the nonprofit Eating for Life Alliance, which seeks to make information, resources, and protocols about eating disorders available to everyone. Anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating affect up to 20 percent of college-aged women and up to 10 percent of college-aged men. At least three-quarters of college students say they are unhappy with their weight. And there is evidence the problem is growing. College administrators reported a 24 percent rise in incidences of eating disorder behavior among college students, according to the 2010 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors.

Michelle George, Boston University Student Health Services, wellness

Photo by Frank Curran

With those statistics in mind, the Wellness & Prevention Services of BU’s Student Health Services tomorrow is hosting its second annual Lovin’ the Body You’re In, a panel discussion addressing the issues around body image and the importance of positive self-esteem. Eating disorder survivor and author Cheryl Kerrigan will share her personal story, joined by several treatment professionals. The panel, moderated by SHS wellness coordinator Michelle George (right), will be held from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Howard Thurman Center. Panelists will answer the audience’s anonymous questions after the discussion.

The event coincides with National Eating Disorder Awareness week, the single largest eating disorder outreach effort in the country. “So many people struggle with their sense of themselves, with their body image,” says event panelist Margaret Ross, director of SHS Behavioral Medicine. “You can’t get away from food. It’s not like some of the other addiction issues. It’s hard, but you can stay away from alcohol. Food is always there. It’s a part of life.”

Following last year’s presentation, three students sought help for their suspected eating disorders. “I think it gives people that extra push to be able to reach out and let someone know that they’re having a hard time,” says Dawn Hynes, CEO and cofounder of the Eating for Life Alliance, which is cosponsoring the event with Remuda Ranch, an Arizona-based hospital specializing in the treatment of eating disorders.

The world of eating disorders is shaped like an iceberg, Ross explains, with the tip representing people living with full-blown anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. But a larger group of people hide below the surface and struggle with an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS), meeting several, but not all, diagnostic criteria. These individuals strictly control what and how much they eat, have a distorted body image, or live in fear of gaining weight.

College, experts acknowledge, can be a particularly vulnerable time for students, who often are deciding for the first time what, when, and how much to eat. They are haunted by warnings of weight gain (the freshman 15). Late-night study sessions are frequently fueled with fatty or high-calorie foods like pizza, potato chips, and soda. And when their clothes suddenly feel a bit tight, some students launch a weight-loss mission that can slip into an endless cycle of restricting, binging, and purging if taken too far.

Margret Ross, Boston University Student Health Services Behavioural Medicine

Photo by Cydney Scott

“People then forget how to identify the normal hunger cues, and they lose track of what it means to just eat normally,” says Ross (above). “They get into a set of bad habits and aren’t sure what to do. And it can happen pretty quickly.”

Those on the brink of an eating disorder may skip meals, strictly monitor what they eat, eat secretively, or visit the bathroom after meals. They may lose weight rapidly and work out several times a day—even when ill. In addition, they may start to miss classes, withdraw socially, or become irritable and overly self-critical. Women may experience irregular periods. Men might switch solely to protein shakes and supplements in an all-encompassing effort to bulk up.

Denial is a big part of living with an eating disorder. “The bottom line is that they don’t get help until someone else or many other people say, ‘You need to get help,’” says George. “They go begrudgingly, and therapists help them see that what they’re doing is abnormal.”

Services are available on campus for those with eating disorders. Students can visit Ross and other therapists at Behavioral Medicine, or Wellness & Prevention Services, or attend Body Talk, a student support group that meets every Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism, in the basement of the George Sherman Union. The University also has an eating disorders team, which pulls together therapists, doctors, dieticians, and athletics staff to address the issue at a campus-wide level.

Recovery is possible, says Ross, but it requires a team effort. “One of the forms of treatment is really to identify this entity, this eating issue, like an addiction that has a life of its own. The doctor or the clinician and the patient can ally against this external force that has so much control over the patient. It’s one of the things that clinicians will try to do to help the patient realize that this eating disorder is not really them.”

Heather came to that realization just before starting senior year of high school. She went into treatment for seven weeks. “It was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my entire life,” she recalls. She returned several times throughout the school year and, during her BU summer orientation met with Ross, whom she calls a “gift from God,” to set up a support team here.

Every day is still a struggle. “I don’t want it to defeat me,” Heather says. But “it’s never really gone.” She feels empowered by sharing her story and wants others to know that no one deserves to live the way she did.

“There’s hope,” Heather says. “I just want to tell people that.”

The panel discussion Lovin’ the Body You’re In will be held tomorrow from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Howard Thurman Center. Panelists are Telling Ed No! author Cheryl Kerrigan, Kate Ackerman, a sports medicine and endocrinology specialist at Children’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital, Margaret Ross, director of SHS Behavioral Medicine, Deborah Russo, a clinical psychologist and speaker for Remuda Ranch, Whitney Post, president and cofounder of the Eating for Life Alliance, and Stacey Zawacki (SAR’98, SPH’13), director of the Sargent Choice Nutrition Center. The panel will be moderated by SHS wellness coordinator Michelle George. There will be food, book signings, and giveaways. The event is free and open to the BU community.

BU has several resources for those struggling with an eating disorder. Contact Behavioral Health at 617-353-3569, Student Health Services at 617-353-3575, Sargent College at 617-353-2721, or visit the student support group Body Talk on Tuesdays at 6 p.m. in the Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism in the George Sherman Union basement.

Students are also encouraged to enroll in the Body Project class PDP HE 103, a four-week exploration of fat talk, the thin ideal in the media and beauty industries, and much more.

Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

One Comment on Lovin’ the Body You’re In

  • lisa on 02.28.2012 at 8:48 am

    Thank you for helping to raise awareness about eating disorders. An eating disorder symptoms can be caged and the person dealing them can get back to the life that she/he wants to live. The team approach is critical and treatment may take a long time, but it can be done. Have faith!

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