Pressure For Perfection: Combating Eating Disorders on College Campuses

It’s no secret that individuals suffer from eating disorders on college campuses across the country. In fact, former UC Berkeley student Kim Russo calls college “a perfect setting for an eating disorder to blossom.” She accredits this truth to the competitive nature of these years as well as the environment that often breeds self-criticism and comparison.

Eating Disorders on College Campuses

As a result of her experience on a high-pressure campus, she founded Body Peace in 2012. Body Peace is a UC Berkeley student-run support group for eating disorders and body image issues. Russo, who graduated from Cal Berkeley in 2016 with a PhD in psychology and behavioral neuroscience, noticed that there weren’t “feminist or women’s empowerment groups” on campus at the undergraduate level when she first enrolled. Having identified the importance of healthy body image and self-esteem during her college years, she felt this needed to be remedied.

It was noted in a recent Berkeley-specific, National College Health Assessment survey that “roughly 5.8 percent of undergrad and graduate students experience problems related to eating disorders, with 2 percent revealing that the disorders have affected their academic performance—be that receiving lower grades on exams or dropping courses completely. And in recent years, there’s been an uptick in students seeking help at the university.” One question remains unanswered: Are eating disorder rates on the rise, or has the awareness campaign contributed to services being utilized more frequently and openly, resulting in more documented cases? 

Questionnaires from University Health Services at Berkeley

In an attempt the shed more light on this phenomenon, Toby Morris, clinical dietitian at Berkeley’s University Health Services, began giving lectures and quizzes on campus to try and gauge students’ relationship with food. The questionnaires contain questions such as, “Have you engaged in one or more disordered eating behaviors within the last six months.” Results suggest that the vast majority of people are engaging in disordered behaviors although they may not meet specific criteria for an eating disorder.” Morris reports some behaviors include purging, smoking cigarettes as a weight loss technique, fasting a day or more, extreme eating and exercise behaviors.

One way to categorize such behaviors among this population via a DSM-5 diagnosis is OSFED (Formerly known as EDNOS: eating disorders not otherwise specified). OSFED suggests an individual is exhibiting some combination of disordered behaviors that may not meet criteria for a “classic” disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, but that behaviors are complex enough to warrant a treatable diagnosis. Morris postulates that, although there are more individuals seeking various forms of treatment at the mental health clinic on campus, “I doubt that there’s more students overall with eating disorders. I’m hoping that it’s just that the word is out that we have this service.”

Body Peace to Combat Body Dissatisfaction

An interesting outcome of Morris’ on-campus surveys and conversations suggested that the most common and worrisome body problem is body dissatisfaction. Morris writes, “Berkeley is a competitive environment, for sure. And these students that get in are already high-achieving, goal-oriented young people…the characteristics that make you a really good student in this competitive environment might also be elements that predispose you to having an eating disorder.”

Body Peace aims to serve such students and has been extremely useful when supporting students who are struggling with body image and body dissatisfaction in its therapy-like, forum setting. The meetings consist of check-ins, educational presentations, relaxation techniques, crafting with messages of body love, open conversations, and so on. The group embraces “body positivity” and has guidelines to ensure no member is sharing harmful or damaging material that may trigger other members.

Morris states, “Changing that paradigm to prevent the development of eating disorders is so important. Because even though I’m in this eating disorder clinic and I’m working on treating the actual eating disorders—I know that working more upstream on changing the culture of the campus and changing how we address body image can help to prevent the eating disorders.”

At Columbus Park, we commend those involved in the development and facilitation of Body Peace for bringing awareness and support to their college campus. Interested in learning more about the development of healthy relationships with food and self? Contact us today.