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Trigger Warning: This story is about eating disorders and disordered eating habits, including detailed descriptions of the author’s own experience with eating disorders.

The University Health Service reported that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, eating disorders among UW students have increased, following the national tendency.

Eating disorders are incredibly common on college campuses, especially among young women. But these disorders have only become more frequent during the pandemic.

There are a variety of reasons why eating disorders are so common among women on college campuses. Societal norms of the body is one of the driving factors. Young women are intensely affected by societal body standards and expect to have flat stomachs but large buttocks and busts despite the fact that a large number of women do not fit this unrealistic standard. Therefore, women may develop disordered eating habits in response to these societal body norms, either to lose weight or to gain it.

These standards can lead to the difficulty of the ‘Freshman 15‘ – or the fear of gaining weight during the first year of university. The university can cut out some of the built-in high school activities — like organized sports — by changing how students find ways to stay active. This transition period can easily lead to changes in the appearance of a student’s body. And while these weight fluctuations are normal, they can be compounded by the already stressful college experience and greatly affect a person’s mental health or lead to disordered eating habits.

Along with societal body norms, anxiety, isolation, and lack of structure can also trigger an eating disorder. These three factors are causally associated with the transition to college life.

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most commmon Types of eating disorders on college campuses are anorexia and bulimia. But, with alcohol consumption prevalent on the UW campus and other college campuses, drunkenness, or deliberately not eating before drinking alcohol, is equally dangerous.

Even though formally diagnosed eating disorders are common in colleges, disordered eating habits are even more prevalent. Disordered eating habits are not exactly diagnosable at onset or in all cases, but often present as skipping a meal or the occasional binge eating. But when not properly addressed, these “habits” can form eating disorders.

With the main factors affecting eating disorders being isolation, anxiety, lack of structure and societal norms, it is no surprise that with the pandemic, the number of eating disorders on university campuses have increased. For some who have felt overwhelmed and helpless for most of the pandemic, one area where control felt as possible was food intake. By shifting control to food, people vulnerable to mental illness could develop disordered eating tendencies.

The pandemic has also increased the time young people spend on their phones and on social media, which researchers found has led to more young adults comparing themselves and their bodies to celebrities they have seen online. There was also a large tendency on social media of people trying to “get in shape” and lose weight during the pandemic, which has had equally dangerous effects on the mental health of those who regularly use social media.

I am one of those women who struggled with an eating disorder during the pandemic, and I continue to struggle with this issue on campus.

In March 2020, I saw many challenges of people working out and losing weight online. As someone who has always been unhappy with my body, I decided to join in and come out of isolation with my “dream body”. To achieve this goal, I trained every day and counted the calories I ingested. Over time, I saw “positive” results when I ate fewer calories, so week after week the simple habit of tracking calories became an obsession – almost like a game.

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I found it exhilarating to see the number on the scale go down with the number of calories I ate per day, but it soon became overwhelming. When I gained even 0.2 pounds on the scale, the day was ruined. If I ate too many calories, I would spiral. On vacation with friends, I couldn’t sleep at night because I was too distracted by how I ate more than I was “supposed to”.

The transition to college life was incredibly painful and I saw a dietitian for help. Only having to eat food in the dining room was like a punishment because I checked the menus every day and bought the lower calorie dishes. I was so petrified that I would win the ‘Freshman 15.’

Slowly I tried to incorporate my dietician’s techniques into my daily life and was able to control the eating disorder that was controlling me. But the one thing I learned about eating disorders that I wish I had known about beforehand is that they never really go away.

But you are improving. The mental pressure isn’t as overwhelming as it used to be, but to this day there’s always a thought in my head about how many calories are in a dish of food – whether people are judging me for what I eat or what my body will look so much better if i just skip dinner. Recovering from an eating disorder is already incredibly difficult, but doing so in college is ten times harder due to a lack of support from college.

After going through this experience, the best thing the administration at UW can do to uplift and support students would be to put more effort into improving the disordered eating services at UHS. Recovery from eating disorders requires patience and understanding. But a lot doctors see a decrease in BMI or a lower number on the scale as a good thing, which is simply not the case with eating disorders.

UHS typically has long wait times for specialty services appointment that make it difficult for students to get help spontaneously. It shouldn’t be. If a student has an eating disorder or eating disorders, they should be seen as soon as possible to address people’s impending physical and mental health issues.

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Additionally, UHS should change its process for treating eating disorders. Currently, UHS has two initial intake appointments with patients, followed by an appointment to prepare the patient for the actual treatment. This system is not productive at all, and if I had seen this treatment process when I was at the worst stage of my eating disorder, I would have been absolutely petrified.

A big problem with eating disorders is that those who are deemed to have a diagnosable disorder, but do not yet have one, believe that they are not sick enough, or their symptoms are not sufficient to be diagnosed because they have neither lost nor gained weight. Forcing students to go through two appointments where they are assessed to find out if they really need help is absurd.

Students asking for help are enough of a sign that they need help.

UHS should focus less on treating only diagnosable eating disorders and instead promote support options for students who have disordered eating habits, helping those who are also at risk of developing an eating disorder. Additionally, the UW administration should promote more information regarding outlets or activities to help students with disordered eating habits on campus to further help students.

Societal norms and the pressure to go to college aren’t going away anytime soon. But by providing timely support to students who need it, UW may be able to help students learn eating disorder management strategies early on.

Emily Oten ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in international relations and journalism.

Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, there are resources to help. Talk to someone about your options for help with the National Eating Disorder Association at (800) 931-2237 online chat at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.

You can also contact UHS here.