A surprising number of Bryn Mawr students struggle with eating disorders
By Clare Mullaney
If you saw Bryn Mawr College senior Joanne Mitchell walking to class or crossing Lancaster Avenue, you would think she was fine.
Her long, blonde hair might stand out, or her sense of style: a fashionable grey cardigan over a graphic tee of Hillary Clinton. When people speak with her, they find her bright, witty, and compassionate. They might think that for her, life is easy.
But, that’s anything but true. For Mitchell, every day is a battle.
Since sixth grade, Mitchell, whose true name she prefers not to be used in the article, has been struggling with anorexia. For years, her life has been defined by depression, anxiety, and obsessions with weight and food.
“If I was forced to eat, I would throw up or over exercise,” she said.
Most people at Bryn Mawr don’t know about Mitchell’s struggles and many students, including Mitchell herself, complain about the lack of discussion concerning eating disorders on campus.
Like Mitchell, 10 million females and one million males struggle with an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Eating Disorders. The organization defines anorexia nervosa as life-threatening disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Bulimia nervosa is also life threatening and is defined by a cycle of behaviors such as self-induced vomiting to compensate for binge eating. Unlike bulimia, people with binge eating disorder binge eat without compensatory measures to undo the excessive eating.
Reggie Jones, the director of the counseling center at Bryn Mawr College, reports having seen 71 cases of eating disorders during the last academic year, 2008-2009, out of the 390 students that came to the counseling center for initial visits. This means that a little over 18 percent of Bryn Mawr students who came to speak with a counselor were struggling with an eating disorder—anorexia, binge eating, or bulimia. If so many are affected, why aren’t they talking?
For Mitchell, the start of college marked a new beginning. “I was really passionate about raising awareness about eating disorders because I always told myself that I’m not going through this for nothing,” she said. “That was the one thing that kept me going when I didn’t feel there was any point in life.”
That’s why Mitchell became involved in the Body Image Council (BIC), an advocacy organization on Bryn Mawr’s campus whose purpose is to raise awareness about both eating disorders and body image issues and to eradicate stigma.
The Body Image Council was started in 1999 by two students who were recovering from eating disorders and wanted to see support on campus, says sophomore Liz Frontino, one of the Body Image Council’s coordinators.
The council consists of about 10 members, including students, counselors, coaches, and athletic trainers who plan events to raise awareness about eating disorders, says Frontino. Events include walks, workshops on body image, guest speakers, book club meetings, and movie nights.
Lack of interest
Despite the small number of participants in the BIC, 13 out of 100 Bryn Mawr students who participated in a Survey Money survey say they have an eating disorder and 55 claim to be struggling with body image issues.
Frontino and Mitchell are frustrated by people’s lack of interest in the group.
Frontino attributes the lack of participation to stigma and shame, but wishes her peers could rise above these misconceptions.
“It makes me disappointed since the women here are so invested in other causes and branching out and being all feminists,” she said. “It’s like we’re so concerned with saving the world that we don’t want to acknowledge our own problems.”
BIC also sponsors a body image support group that consists of about nine to 11 students. This year the group includes four Haverford students, one of them a male.
Jones says that there is a higher rate of eating disorders at Bryn Mawr because it’s an all women’s college and eating disorders predominately affect women. “That’s just given the nature of gender,” she says.
Jones says that eating disorders are not usually a person’s only diagnosis, but are often accompanied by anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or adjustment disorder. The eating disorder, she says, often serves as a mechanism for coping with these other issues.
People who suffer from anorexia often exhibit perfectionist qualities, or Type A personality traits. Jones says that Bryn Mawr’s percentage of students with eating disorders doesn’t differ much from other top schools such as Harvard, MIT, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, or Swarthmore.
“We attract a similar type of student: high achieving, dynamic, and very bright,” all attributes that often characterize an individual with an eating disorder, she says.
Fontino, who suffers from “disordered eating,” which includes bingeing and purging, believes that the heavy workload at Bryn Mawr increases the symptoms of people’s eating disorders. “Sometimes I feel like I need to be doing work and don’t have time to focus on my health,” she said. “This is a stressful place. Plus, being away from home and comfort doesn’t really help when you’re in a situation like this.”
Many believe that for Bryn Mawr students, an eating disorder is seen as a weakness.
“When people think about the ‘Bryn Mawr Woman,’ they certainly don’t think about her having body issues,” said Jones. “They think about feminists and activists. They don’t think about her, that she may be vulnerable and struggling.”
Mitchell finds that Bryn Mawr students often live in their own bubble and find little interest in what doesn’t affect them.
For the past two years, students in Bryn Mawr’s freshman Wellness Course, a class intended to introduce first-year students to services offered on campus, were required to attend a lecture sponsored by the Body Image Council. Mitchell remembers reading in an online discussion forum that last year’s lecture given by Kathleen MacDonald, a woman who has recovered from anorexia and does work with the Gail R. Schoenbach Foundation for the Recovery and Elimination of Eating Disorders, had made students uncomfortable.
Frontino has had a similar experience. She’s told some of her friends about her struggles with eating, but hasn’t received the best reactions. Some are supportive, but it makes most people uncomfortable. “That’s why I haven’t told everyone I’m close to,” she says. “I’d prefer to deal with it alone.”
In the recent Survey Monkey survey, 29 percent of those polled report that discussions concerning eating disorders make them uncomfortable.
Mitchell emphasized the importance of education concerning eating disorders. “It’s about pushing yourself. It’s a reality,” she said. “People die from eating disorders.”
At high risk
“It’s scary because the women here are at such high risks for these type of behaviors, but I’m not sure if people know that or would ever want to realize it,” Frontino said.
As Frontino notes, many students fail to realize the severity of these disorders. One participant in a survey wrote, “I think that people who have eating disorders mainly do it because they want attention. It would be more helpful if the person spoke with a professional rather than other people who support her disorder.”
Not many people recognize the impact that Mitchell’s eating disorder has had on her life. Not only did she have to withdraw from the fall semester of her sophomore year to focus on treatment, but she currently sets aside time in her busy schedule to meet with a therapist twice a week, a nutritionist once a week, and a psychiatrist every other week.
Frontino emphasizes that her disordered eating is not something she can help. “I know I didn’t choose this, and other women don’t choose it either,” she said. “I don’t consider myself weak in the least. Dealing with these problems has made me stronger than most people I know.”
Perhaps what Bryn Mawr students fail to realize is that speaking about eating disorders and body image is empowering.
Despite all the pain her anorexia has caused, Mitchell is in some ways thankful for what it’s given her. “I have a lot more insight into myself than other people. It also helps you understand people better,” she said. “Once I’ve done this, I can do anything.”