Nearly 25 million people are struggling through a form of eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating in the United States, according to National Eating Disorders Association.
Aimed to help bring light to the matter, the Reflections Body Image Program hosted various events on Slippery Rock University’s campus over the past week as part of the National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which runs from Feb. 26 to March 3.
Jennifer Sanftner, the chairperson of the SRU Psychology Department and a leader of the campus’s Reflections Program, said the program wants to challenge the media in an effort to help address issues of body image and subsequently eating disorders.
“We help women challenge the media messages they receive daily about how their bodies should look,” Sanftner said. “Most women hear and see these media images multiple times every day for years that communicate to them that a woman is only beautiful if she looks a certain way.”
Although women know the media portrayal of beauty is wrong, it is difficult not to let those standards affect the way one sees themselves, according to Sanftner.
“Even when we know the messages are destructive, as women, we can’t help but look at ourselves as not matching up to these ideals, because let’s face it, the vast majority of us do not,” Sanftner said. “We help women affirm that they are much more than their appearance, that they are valued for qualities besides their looks, and that their bodies are just fine the way they are.”
Kaity Deutsch, 23, knows the struggles associated with eating disorders first hand, as she battled through anorexia for years while she studied dance as a teenager.
“Pictures are flashed at us every day of models and celebrities, and we’re trained to pick the thinner one as more beautiful,” Deutsch said. “It’s the same in the dance world.”
Deutsch started dancing when she was five years old and by the time she was 10, she knew she wanted to pursue it as more than just a hobby. She got her lucky break in the field when she was just 13, getting accepted to the American Ballet Theatre in New York City on scholarship. She trained there in the summers while attending dance school in Pittsburgh until she was 18.
While she was chasing down her childhood dreams, Deutsch began to face the challenges seen far too often in the industry.
“During this time it should’ve been great and happy, and I initially was, but there were underlying pressures building on me,” Deutsch said. “I had outward support from teachers and friends but there was an underlying pressure to look a certain way. Ballet dancers were to be under 100 pounds no matter what. So my mind shifted to ‘I have to do this.’ There was some real mental turmoil.”
In order to achieve the look expected upon dancers and ease the struggles in her mind, Deutsch began controlling her food intake daily when she was 16, after she had moved out of her parents ‘house and into an apartment in Pittsburgh.
“Rather than deal with it by seeking help I dealt with it by restricting my food intake to almost nothing,” Deutsch said. “I kept a log of everything I ate. On some days I would just write down ‘water’ to try to feel like I was still being healthy. More than anything, one of the things so addicting and compelling was the element of control. With my injuries and my teachers being dissatisfied with my work and my image, the only thing I could control was my food intake.”
Deutsch would wake up every morning for home schooling before going to class from the early afternoon until late in the evening. She had a short break for dinner, but said she would be somewhere else practicing more.
“The issue was people wanted me to look a certain way and that was the only way I could achieve it,” Deutsch said. “No one knew the struggles I was going through in my head.”
Deutsch said that while she had friends at the dance school, eating disorders simply weren’t talked about.
“I had friends at school when I was dancing but a lot of them were dealing with similar issues,” Deutsch said. “It was not talked about at all. An eating disorder has such a stigma – it’s such a black secret. It’s something you don’t share with someone. It’s uncomfortable and humiliating.”
While she never told anyone of the struggles she was going through, the signs were there.
“People might have had an idea but they never confronted me,” Deutsch said. “I wish they had.”
Although she would have been devastated at the time had she been confronted, Deutsch now regrets the fact that no one said anything to her.
“The thing that is most frustrating is, while not many people saw it, those who did see it did nothing,” Deutsch said.
It wasn’t until Deutsch went back home to visit her parents for Thanksgiving that the pain and darkness she was going through came to light. Realizing her daughter was noticeably lighter and acting different, Deutsch’s mother was able to pull the story out of her.
“The way she brought it up was in a calm and private manner. It made me want to talk,” Deutsch said. “Rather than feel bad about myself I knew someone cared.”
After struggling with the eating disorder for almost three years, Deutsch finally decided to quit dance and move on to college. It’s something she feels was vital to her being able to start recovering from the emotional turmoil that haunted her for so long.
“I saw my life spiraling,” Deutsch said. “What I sought so much was control over my appearance and my dance career. But for every little bit I controlled more, I had less control of my life in general.”
Thanks to the support from her family, Deutsch decided to come to college to study athletic training. While she no longer tries to limit her food intake, her struggle isn’t over.
“It’s a mental battle I still fight through,” Deutsch said. “Just the way of feeling about yourself—even four years later, I still have this issue I need to fight back against.”
Deutsch now has friends on campus going through similar disorders, and is using her experiences as a means to help them battle through the mental struggles.
“If you have a friend come to you with an issue, it needs to be treated with the most privacy,” Deutsch said. “It’s one of the most personal things someone could share with you.”
The issue of eating disorders on college campuses is growing at an alarming rate, according to Sanftner.
“Studies suggest that up to 66 percent of women on a college campus engage in disordered eating behaviors,” Sanftner said. “That is a very high number.”
It is far too high a number considering the impacts an eating disorder can have on a person’s life, according to Sanftner.
“Eating disorders are often seen by people as ‘no big deal; just eat.’ However, they are serious mental disorders that will eventually take over a person’s life. Someone with an eating disorder will have great difficulty completing school, and many drop out or do not accomplish what they might have had they not had the eating disorder. It also affects relationships, jobs, and other important aspects of life.”
“It is really important to understand that once an eating disorder develops, a person loses control and they can suffer serious medical complications as well as impairment in their ability to go through life,” Sanftner added. “At some point, they simply cannot eat in a normal way without treatment that helps them relearn how to do this. Although we have excellent treatments for eating disorders, the best thing to do is to prevent them to begin with.”
In order to prevent future eating disorders from arising, it is important to understand how and why they start. That’s something that Sanftner said is more complex than most people realize, especially for college students.
“In addition to the negative impact the media has on women’s body image and self-esteem, there are influences from the environment, such as pressures that may come from peers or family members,” Sanftner said. “Stress, in particular the stress of leaving home and coming to college, is a big factor. Students may be separated from their families for the first time and they may lack the supports necessary to get them through. There are certainly some biological and genetic factors as well. It is most important for people to realize that it is no one’s fault if they develop an eating disorder. They develop from a confluence of factors.”
Deutsch certainly understands the reasoning behind the disorders, as well as the ways to overcome them. The one thing she feels strongly about is that people are there for you if you are struggling through an eating disorder—whether it is friends, family, or counseling.
“Even though it is such a dark, scary, and alone place to feel, you’re not alone at all.”