Co-authored by Llewellyn Boggs and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.
About 40 percent of college and university freshmen struggle with disordered eating, with 80 percent being women. Its culture permeates college life, it is both subtle and increasingly normalized, and is prevalent in environments where being skinny is idealized, praised, and strived for.
Tamar Spilberg, a therapist and social worker in Toronto, differentiates between eating disorders and disordered eating. Spilberg explains that an eating disorder is a mental health concern, whereas disordered eating is influenced more by trends and social media. Typically, individuals with disordered eating have strong self-worth, and they are not as deeply influenced by societal norms or opinions in comparison to an individual with an eating disorder. Individuals with eating disorders often deal with difficulties in control and other psychological problems.
The underlying shame around the “Freshman 15” (the extra 15 pounds new college students are often said to put on) has influenced the way students interact with each other and their eating habits. The everyday language surrounding weight and shape among students contributes to a culture in which, if you’re not striving for thinness, you are considered lazy. Examples of this everyday culture of shame include mentioning how little one has eaten due to working hard, using coffee as a meal replacement, and not eating meals, in part, to make intoxication easier.
Spilberg describes how eating disorders and disordered eating manifest in the post-secondary environment. She believes the phenomenon is more dangerous on university campuses because parents are not around to help students resist the new norms they experience. Beginning in junior high, teens and young adults are highly influenced by their peers who are in turn influenced by social media and trends. In university settings, these young adults are surrounded by their peers, they experience independence for the first time, they are under a lot of pressure for academic achievement and social success, and they are easily influenced by social norms. It creates the perfect storm.
In this way, students may be reinforced by peers for engaging in unhealthy behaviours. Hustle culture, a modern lifestyle in which people try to fill every minute of their day with work, is a related problem. Despite the destructive effect it has on mental health, many young adults identify with hustle culture and promote overworking with little to no downtime. Much like disordered eating culture, hustle culture associates a lack of self-care with success, creating serious problems among students.
Allana Blumberg, a fitness and lifestyle micro-influencer, describes her own personal experience during her college years with peer-influenced disordered eating. She explains it is something that is very hush-hush and a lot of people are oblivious to. In Allana’s experience, disordered eating is sort of the norm and accepted as okay among students. It happens often around clubs and parties, or any time there is a drinking event. It made her not want to eat proper meals beforehand for fear of not looking skinny enough or consuming too many calories alongside the alcohol. “It made me constantly body check, comparing myself with others or how I looked in high school versus college.”
Allana explains how she was able to free herself from the disordered eating culture she encountered in college. For her, it sadly required leaving the on-campus environment and moving back home upon transferring to a different school. “I don’t know if I would have gotten out of that mentality and culture if I had continued to live on campus.”
Copyright Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.