Eating Disorders Awareness Week reminds students of epidemic
Leah Nash developed an eating disorder when she was just 14 years old. For the next six years, she lived miserably, confined to a cage of anorexia nervosa.
Nash’s skin turned pale and cold, her hair started falling out, her sassy personality was gone. She wore baggy clothes to hide her body and avoided friends and family to not have to lie about her eating habits.
“Anorexia is living in this weird world of your own that twists every minute into agony,” Nash said. “I was just so focused and determined to get through each minute not eating. It was easier to focus on the hollow feeling in my stomach, and the numbness that comes with malnutrition than to feel the real life pain I was avoiding.”
Nash is one of the hundreds of thousands of college students battling an eating disorder. According to a study from National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 86 percent of college students surveyed reported having an eating disorder by age 20. In that same study, 91 percent of women reported trying to control their weight through dieting.
According to ANAD, anorexia nervosa is characterized by “a relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight, a distortion of body image and intense fear of gaining weight and extremely disturbed eating behavior.” People with anorexia often lose weight by excessive dieting and exercising, self-induced vomiting or by using laxatives.
“Eating disorders are very complicated – (they) often develop from a combination of behavioral, biological, emotional, psychological and social factors,” UH campus dietician Sarah Feye said. “I think college students are at risk due to new found independence, stress from excelling in academics and societal pressures.”
Diet fads have taken a more dangerous turn in recent years, which could be another reason for the huge proportion of college students that struggle with eating disorders. “Pro-ana,” “pro-mia” and “thinspiration” blogs that promote unhealthy weight loss have almost become commonplace. Sites like these create unrealistic expectations for teens and young adults and only add more fuel to the fire.
“I can see how a girl or guy, with low self-esteem or intense depression and anxiety might go online to countless websites for some sort of relief or answer and find sickening images, ‘tips’ and horrible diets,” Nash said. “Everyone has probably seen thinspo somewhere and heard of the thigh gap by now, and maybe it’s just too easy to find.”
The “thigh gap” Nash is referring to has become a significant trend among young girls and calls for them to have a noticeable gap between their thighs to be considered thin. Expectations like these can be extremely deadly.
According to the ANAD, eating disorders have higher mortality rates than any mental disorders, and even those numbers are slighted because people who suffer from an eating disorder may ultimately die of malnutrition, suicide, organ or heart failure and those complications are reported, not the disorder.
“People don’t realize the basic core of an eating disorder isn’t about food or weight — controlling food and focusing on your body and weight are just the symptoms,” Nash said. “Eating disorders are all about being able to control your life when you feel like it’s out of control because of life circumstances, anxiety, other mental disorders, or more likely a combination.”
After years of agony, Nash finally reached her breaking point and entered treatment at the Laureate Eating Disorders Program in Tulsa, Okla. Nash said her time in the program was difficult because she was not able to make her own choices and decisions, which is “basically torture” for someone who has an eating disorder.
“The first three quarters of your time at treatment, you want to go home the whole time,” Nash said. “You want to lie and cheat and fake it until you just go home and go right back to where you started. You see your treatment team as the enemy, and you convince yourself that they don’t know what they’re talking about and they’re full of (crap).”
Nash said she finally found solace in the program by making friends that understood her situation.
“It was amazing being able to be around girls who understood why you were crying at lunch, or why it took you an hour to finish a sandwich, or when to tell you jokes and distract you so that you could finish that damn baked potato,” Nash said. “You didn’t have to explain yourself to anyone; they already got it.”
She said she is still recovering from anorexia and that recovery is a work in progress.
“It occurred to me that there is something beyond the deepest part of your eating disorder,” Nash said. “There’s more of an end to it than hospital beds and eventual death. Because that is all anorexia is – a slow and cruel form of suicide.”