Trigger warning: this story discusses eating disorders and disordered eating habits, including in-depth descriptions of the author’s own eating disorder experience.

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

Eating disorders are incredibly common on college campuses, particularly for young women. But these disorders only became more prevalent during the pandemic.

There are a variety of reasons why eating disorders are so common for women on college campuses. Societal body standards is one of the driving factors. Young women are intensely affected by society’s body standards with expectations to have a flat stomach yet a large butt and bust despite large numbers of women not fitting this unrealistic standard. Consequently, women can develop disordered eating habits in response to these societal body standards either to lose weight or to gain it.

These standards can culminate into the difficulty of the ‘Freshman 15’ — or the fear of gaining weight during the freshman year of college. College can take away some of the built-in activities from high school — like organized sports — changing how students find ways to stay active. This transition period can easily lead to changes in how a female college student’s body appears. And while these weight fluctuations are normal, they can be compounded with the already-stressful college experience and greatly affect a person’s mental health or lead to disordered eating habits.

In addition to societal body standards, anxiety, isolation and a lack of structure are equally able to set off an eating disorder. All three of these factors are causally associated with the transition to college life.

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The most common types of eating disorders on college campuses are anorexia and bulimia. But, with the use of alcohol prevalent on the UW campus and other college campuses, drunkorexia, or purposefully not eating before drinking liquor, is equally as dangerous.

Though formally diagnosed eating disorders are common at universities, disordered eating patterns are even more prevalent. Disordered eating habits are not exactly diagnosable at first or in all cases, instead often present as skipping a meal or the occasional binge eating. But when not properly treated, these ‘habits’ can form eating disorders.

With the main factors affecting eating disorders being isolation, anxiety, lack of structure and societal standards, it is no surprise that with the pandemic the number of eating disorders on college campuses increased. For some who felt overwhelmed and powerless during the majority of the pandemic, one area where control felt possible was food intake. By shifting control to eating, those who are vulnerable to mental illness might develop disorderly eating tendencies.

The pandemic also increased the amount of time young people spend on their phones and social media, which researchers found resulted in more young adults comparing themselves and their bodies to celebrities they saw online. There was also a large trend across social media of people attempting to ‘get fit’ and lose weight during the pandemic, which had equally dangerous effects on the mental health of those regularly using social media.

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

In March 2020, I saw many challenges of people working out and losing weight online. As someone who had always been unhappy with my body, I decided I would join in and come out of isolation with my ‘dream body.’ To achieve that goal, I worked out every day and counted the calories I ate. As time went on, I saw ‘positive’ results when I ate fewer calories, so week by 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 a day, but it quickly became overwhelming. When I gained even 0.2 pounds on the scale, the day would be ruined. If I ate too many calories, I would spiral. On a vacation with friends, I couldn’t sleep at night because I was too distracted by how I had eaten more than I was ‘supposed to.’

The transition to college life was incredibly painful, and I saw a dietician to get some help. Having to only eat dining hall food was like a punishment because I would check the menus every day and get the items with the least calories. I was so petrified that I would gain the ‘Freshman 15.’

Slowly, I tried to incorporate my dietician’s techniques into my everyday life and was able to get control over the eating disorder that controlled me. But the thing I learned about eating disorders which I so desperately wish I knew beforehand — they never really go away.

But you do get better. The mental pressure is not nearly as overwhelming as it once was, but to this day, there is always a thought in my head about how many calories are in a food dish — that people are judging me for what I eat or that my body will look so much better if I just skip dinner. It is already incredibly difficult to recover from an eating disorder, but doing it in college is ten times harder because of a lack of support from the university.

After going through this experience, the best thing that the UW administration could do to uplift and support students would be to put more effort into improving UHS’s disordered eating services. Eating disorder recovery requires patience and understanding. But, many 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 specialized appointments that make it hard for students to spontaneously get help. This should not be the case. If a student has an eating disorder or disordered eating concerns, they should be seen as soon as possible to address the imminent physical and mental health concerns of people.

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

A large problem with disordered eating is that those who qualify as having a diagnosable disorder but may not have one yet believe they aren’t sick enough, or their symptoms aren’t enough to be diagnosed because they haven’t lost or gained weight. Forcing students to go through two appointments where they are evaluated on whether or not they actually need help is absurd.

Students seeking out assistance is 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 any disordered eating patterns, thus helping those who are at risk for developing an eating disorder too. Additionally, the UW administration should promote more information regarding outlets or activities to help students with disordered eating patterns around campus to further help students.

Societal standards and the pressure of going to college are not going away any time soon. But by providing support in a timely fashion to students who need it, UW might be able to help students learn management strategies for disordered eating early on.

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

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

You can also contact UHS here.