One of your friends has an eating disorder. Have you noticed?

By:
02/15/2007

she’s so thin he’s got a great body she always looks so good how do they do it do you think she has an eating disorder do you think she’s okay I bet she can fit her whole fist down her throat she looks fantastic

Eating disorders at Georgetown are all about what you overhear, and what you don’t hear at all. They’re about what you thought you heard in the girl’s bathroom on your freshman floor after dinner one night. They’re about the rumors you hear of the dining hall lettuce being sprayed with protein. They’re about the quiet conversational asides and the quieter stigmatization of conditions like anorexia and bulimia, about the snap judgments and misconceptions that discourage sympathy and stifle awareness of the real issues at hand.

More than anything, though, they’re about the numbers you don’t hear. According to James Welsh, Assistant Vice President of Student Health Services, an extensive survey of Georgetown students in 2006 revealed that 3.1 percent of the student body reported experiencing anorexia and 3.6 percent reported experiencing bulimia. Those figures appear to overlap to some degree: Mary Quigley, a psychiatrist for the University’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services, and the point person for students with eating disorders on campus, puts a high-end estimate of the proportion of the student body she sees for eating disorders at five percent. She said that Georgetown had higher statistics of eating disorders than other universities in that 2006 survey, known as the National College Health Assessment, but did not know exactly which other schools the study included.

The study data from Welsh did not provide a breakdown by gender, but Dr. Quigley said that in her seven years at CAPS she had seen only two men with eating disorders.

Even allowing for overlap between conditions, the numbers point to something close to one out of 10 female students suffering from an eating disorder, a very high number even in the context of a statistically high-risk population like college students at a top-tier institution. So why isn’t this fact more public, let alone common knowledge? The answer is a widespread lack of awareness, of both the resources available on campus for students suffering from eating disorders and the actual causes of those disorders, which range far beyond the body image insecurity at the heart of the popular understanding. Both Quigley at CAPS and Carol Day, the Registered Nurse and nutritionist who serves as Director of Health Education Services, do a great amount of work to help students deal with eating disorders, and their services are greatly appreciated by the students who seek them out. In addition to individual counseling, Quigley has been running student support groups for the last several years, allowing students with eating disorders to meet and commiserate over their experiences.

“I have had nothing but good experiences with CAPS,” Teresa Rupp (SFS ‘09) said. “They are so accessible, and everyone I’ve worked with there has been so amazing and so helpful.” Rupp became anorexic after her family moved from Chicago to Rhode Island between her freshman and sophomore years of high school, and while she was able to bring that condition under control before it became too severe, she began binge eating during her senior year and into her time at Georgetown. But when she came to terms with her problem and decided to seek help through the University, she said, the onus was on her to research the resources offered.

“Carol Day is there if you take the time to go find her, but I didn’t know about her until I went to my RA last year and she gave me her phone number,” Rupp said. “It’s just not really talked about openly, discussed, so you don’t necessarily know the resources are there until you go digging for them.”

Julia Burton (COL ‘10), who has suffered from anorexia and participated in the CAPS support group last semester, agreed.

“I think the group I was in was the only one at that time, and seeing how few people were in that, it seems like whatever programs they have aren’t reaching a large number of people,” she said. There were only about five other people in the group when Burton attended.

“We need to do more marketing, we need to do more awareness events,” Day said. “And some of that should come out of my office, but often we work in partnership with student groups, and absent a strong student group, when we have to generate the student grassroots enthusiasm for it, it’s a little harder to do.”

The main student group working with Day and others in recent years to raise awareness and promote advocacy around the issue of eating disorders was Students Ending Eating Disturbances, an organization that grew out of a student partnership with the CAPS support group. Under the leadership of Megan McGrath (COL ‘05) two years ago, SEED gained Student Activities Committee funding and worked extensively through flyering campaigns, fundraising efforts and special events like on-campus speakers to raise awareness of the facts underlying eating disorders and the resources available to cope with them on campus. But last spring the group’s then-president, Michael-Casper Kroop (COL ‘07), decided to dissolve the organization, citing a weak organizational set-up and sense of purpose, a lack of student interest and a sense that the group’s goals had been achieved. He said the group’s identity was confused between members who saw it as primarily a support group and those who were more interested in advocacy.

Beyond technical difficulties, though, Kroop also felt that the group had achieved all of its long-term goals, which amounted to working with Vice President of Auxiliary Services Margie Bryant to make nutrition information in the dining hall readily available, hire an in-house nutritionist, and create an independent student support group, which no longer exists. He did not count advocacy and spreading awareness among those long-term goals, despite noting that those were the charter reasons for making SEED an official SAC group.

Kroop and co-president Beth Walker (SFS ‘07), who suffered from an eating disorder in high school, took over SEED in the fall of 2005, and Walker reinvigorated the support group with CAPS, but the number of attendees fell sharply compared to previous years, and she said that there was little interest in the awareness side.

“I went away second semester, and then it just died,” she said. “Now I think people just don’t know where to go.”

“It was hard to keep the group going without her,” Kroop said of Walker. “So it fell apart. I was hoping that they would try it again in the fall and try to work out some of the shortcomings, but as far as I know that hasn’t happened.”

Kroop’s main reason for disbanding SEED was that he simply thought there was no longer a need for such a group on campus. As evidence, he pointed to a survey from his junior year indicating that about 70 percent of students felt knowledgeable about eating disorders, but he acknowledged that that would change with the student body turnover every four years. Kroop said he believed that the need to promote more awareness of available resources, felt by both students like Rupp and Burton and administrators like Day, was something a student group could possibly do, but “at this time I don’t think anything like that is necessary.” He said he thought that with the information available at the Health Education Services office and their cooperation with CAPS and the Student Health Center, in addition to the results of the survey, he didn’t feel like there was a lack of awareness on campus. He believes that the Peer Education program covers some of the eating disorder resources available to students, although he admitted that he has never attended the program in his time here.

Day said that when SEED was more active, there were more ongoing outreach efforts that the group would spearhead and added that Health Education’s main resource is currently its web presence on be.georgetown.edu, which they are planning to market more heavily to the student body soon. There are still two SEED websites up within the larger Georgetown site index, but the contacts posted have all graduated, and the e-mail addresses and phone numbers are no longer accurate.

All of the students interviewed who had participated in support groups at Georgetown said that the groups were very helpful and that a student-run group outside of CAPS, such as that which SEED used to run, would be a welcome development.

“It was really nice to get to know these girls, and then to see them outside of group just walking around campus, and just to wave and say hi to each other,” Rupp said of her experience. “It always made you feel not so alone.” She added that she would join SEED if it became an active group again and would definitely be interested in an independent student support group, especially if it was free, given that her experience with the CAPS group helped her to realize how many girls share her situation. While counseling at CAPS begins free, there is a cost associated with their services and the group Quigley runs.

“The money is what keeps a lot of people out of CAPS that otherwise might go,” Rupp said.

One of the main reasons Rupp would like to see the re-emergence of a group like SEED is the preponderance of misconceptions that dominates student knowledge and opinions of eating disorders.

“I think it’s hard for people in this kind of environment to take advantage of these kinds of things, to want to put themselves out there and admit that there’s something wrong,” she said. “As long as there’s still such a stigma about it, people are less likely to want to go seek help, and just try to deal with it on their own.”

Eating disorders are not, as is commonly believed, confined to body image issues: Rupp and Burton both ascribed their problems to stresses and anxieties in their lives, such as the transition from high school to college and personal relationships.

“It’s just a coping mechanism,” Rupp said. “My boyfriend can pull out his guitar and strum for a couple hours. Some people binge-drink every weekend. It’s just that some coping mechanisms are good for you, and some become self-destructive.”

She compared the willful ignorance of the true causes of eating disorders to the way many Georgetown students tend to laugh about excessive alcohol consumption without questioning what causes it.

“They don’t admit that they’re binge-drinking to avoid the pressures in their life, they just laugh about it on Monday,” she said. “There’s just so much pressure not to see what’s underlying it, not to talk about it.”

Another common misconception is that eating disorders only affect women, but while it is far rarer, men are susceptible to them as well. Kroop proves the exception to the rule, as a male student who has struggled with an eating disorder at Georgetown.

Quigley also stressed that the causes of eating disorders are frequently emotional.

“I think a lot of bulimia has to do with dealing with feelings, and bingeing and purging can help you deal with feelings of loneliness or anger or sadness or anxiety, and it’s a way to avoid those feelings,” she said.

She also indicated that the high-achieving, perfectionist tendencies of students at top-level colleges like Georgetown tend to make matters worse. Day said that the criteria required to be admitted to Georgetown lend themselves to students with predispositions towards perfectionism and obsessive compulsion.

Image still plays a large role in the disorders many people develop, but Burton and Rupp both pointed to the pressure not just to look the part of the successful Hoya but to act that way as well—to seem put-together and composed in the face of stress.

“People seem to have the mentality that not eating a lot and going to the gym often as well as being really stressed out about work is kind of a way to be successful, or to come across as successful,” Burton said.

“I think people’s mindsets about it have to change,” she continued. “I think a lot of people think that people with eating disorders are kind of vain, or just image-obsessed, I guess, and for me it was a lot more to do with everything I was experiencing emotionally.”

Even at Yates, where Day said that the management monitors excessive student activity and refers students whose exercise and weight seem particularly worrisome to her and others, the mixed messages persist.

“They have this huge eating disorder board that’s like, ‘does anyone you know have any of these symptoms?’ It almost seems like some witch poster, like ‘does anyone you know own a cat? Absent at the full moon?’ or something,” Burton said. “And then right next to that they have a poster that says something like, ‘do you have bikini on the brain?’ or something, and it’s this whole thing about some course that you can take for spring break, so that your body looks great by the time you go to the beach, literally right next to it.”

She sees the combination of the prevalent social stigma surrounding eating disorders with the competitive mentality surrounding eating and going to the gym as evidence of a prevailing contradictory mindset.

But flyers, tabling and speakers can only do so much to change that mindset. Rupp acknowledged that people tend to ignore such campaigns for issues and events if they’re not already interested.

“I helped plan the biggest event, the most successful event SEED ever had, and it was only at most 75 people who attended,” Kroop said. “It does make a difference, but when you think in big terms, it probably didn’t make all that much of a difference as far as how many students were aware about eating disorders on campus.”

The dissolution of SEED has certainly not helped to promote greater awareness on campus, but Day said that planning is underway to have another Eating Disorder Awareness Week at the end of February, to promote the resources the University offers and try to work against the stigmatizing mindset that dominates at Georgetown. None of the students with eating disorders interviewed for this story fit the popular stereotype. None looked the part of the emaciated girl who sparks the gossip. They’re not the ones you expect to hear about.

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Chris Norton


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