Students wage war against self-perceived body image
Published: Thursday, January 17, 2013
Updated: Thursday, January 17, 2013 00:01
She was holding it all together with a smile. As long as she kept her lips perfectly curved, they would never suspect a thing. They would never know the girl with the perfect life was dying by her own hand. They would never know the person they saw was not the same person she saw in the mirror.
“I was living a double life,” said Caitlyn Moore, a sophomore agriculture communications and journalism major. “One was filled with this ‘perfect’ girl who had the good grades, the boyfriend, the friends — life was great. And then there was the other part of me who was crying herself to sleep every night and would spend nights throwing up in the toilet.”
Eating disorders affect up to 24 million people in the U.S., especially among college-aged individuals. Students at colleges nationwide fight with their reflections in the mirror every morning, waging war with what they should look like.
Body image research
Marisol Perez, a professor in Texas A&M’s psychology department, focuses her research on eating disorders and body image. She said within American culture it is common, to a certain degree, for a woman to be dissatisfied with her physical body. Within the academic community this “certain degree” of dissatisfaction with ones’ self has been termed “normative discontent.”
Those with body image disorders experience a dissatisfaction that surpasses normative discontent.
“When we’re working with individuals with body image issues or eating disorder issues, the goal is not to get them to zero, because that’s not possible,” Perez said. “The goal is to get them to normative discontent.”
Though the battle against negative body image is most impactful on a personal level, Perez said the problem exists on a societal level.
“Our current society is contributing to women's poor body image,” Perez said. “The weight loss, plastic surgery, pharmaceutical, cosmetic and media industries all profit from women being dissatisfied with the way they look. They are the ones driving the constant pressure to look a certain way.”
Though both men and women are affected by the pressure to look a certain way, 85 to 95 percent of those struggling with an eating disorder are women. Perez said though the ideal male body is beginning to appear in the media, the ideal female has been an image that has been perpetuated for a far greater amount of time. Her research suggests this message is negatively impacting girls as young as four years old.
“The female ideal has been around for a long time,” Perez said. “I think over time, it’s gotten more and more concrete.”
Kristin Clemens, a psychologist with the Student Counseling Services on campus, coordinates the Eating Disorder Services. She said an implicit — and false — link between happiness and a certain body type is a very prevalent idea.
“The media promotes the idea that we will be happy and successful if we fit a particular stereotype,” Clemens said.
This implied connection between thinness and happiness is what first attracted Moore to her eating disorder in the fifth grade.
“I remember being extremely self-conscious when I was in fifth grade,” Moore said. “I felt like everyone else was skinnier, prettier and smarter than me. I felt like I wasn't good enough and my thoughts just got worse from there. I felt like an outsider and I thought that to be popular you had to be skinny. So that’s what I did; I tried to get skinnier.”
Moore said her freshman year was completely consumed by her eating disorder.
“I came in my freshman year with the mindset, ‘I can act on symptoms any time I want,’” Moore said. “My freshman year was extremely difficult. I never went to classes and almost failed. I ended up in the ER twice because I had blacked out and stopped breathing.”
Moore pushed her body to the limits by over-exercising.
“I would cry myself to sleep every night and would have panic and anxiety attacks all the time. If you ask me about my freshman year, all I can tell you about is my eating disorder. I don't remember anything else. I was isolated, miserable and dying.”
Kate Fuller, senior recreation, parks and tourism sciences major, had also struggled with an eating disorder. She said she believed her eating disorder would bring her happiness, though in reality it was accomplishing the exact opposite.
“It’s not something that is going to make you happy,” Fuller said. “It’s not worth the depression. It’s not making you happy, it’s making you miserable and it’s hurting your friendships and your relationship with your family.”
Recovery proved ‘most difficult’
Both Moore and Fuller fought their eating disorders aggressively through treatment, though it was by no means an easy battle. Fuller said her recovery process was the most difficult part of her journey.
“You struggle with this mindset that, ‘I need to be this way’ for so long that when it’s different and it’s not what you want it to be, it’s hard to accept that you’re still valuable and you’re still pretty,” she said.
Moore confronted her eating disorder by entering into a residential treatment facility for a month.
“I went to residential for one month and then did two months of outpatient work,” Moore said. “I went to countless therapy sessions. My entire summer consisted of treatment and therapy. I had to give up a lot of bad habits and completely change everything.”
Fuller and Moore have found hope through their struggles. Moore said she is living life as a completely different person now that she has developed healthier habits.
“I feel like a completely new person since I got out of treatment,” Moore said. “It's like I'm living life for the first time. I realized how much I was missing out on now that I'm healthy. Now I can walk across campus without blacking out. I can eat in front of other people. I can have conversations without forgetting what I said. Recovery is an extremely long process, especially since I've struggled for so long. I think that one day I will be fully recovered.”