*For the purpose of simplicity, this article will be written using feminine pronouns. Men are developing eating disorders in increasing numbers. Disordered eating is not solely a women's issue.
It's a rare person who is content with her body's appearance. Each day 78% of seventeen year old women awake dissatisfied with their bodies. On the same day 85% of adult women are on some kind of a diet aimed toward changing their physical appearance. Our society has become increasingly focused on body size and physical fitness. It's no longer enough to be strong and healthy, a really attractive man or woman must also be thin and toned. We equate physical beauty with sexiness, power, and having increased social and career choices. Those who don't achieve these ideals may feel discouraged, unworthy, or depressed.
The Bowdoin social environment is like our broader culture in its emphasis on physical attractiveness. When you add to this the pressure to excel academically, socially, and often athletically, a community is formed that can unintentionally encourage disordered eating and lack of self-acceptance.
On the following pages, we offer:
- an explanation of the Counseling Service's philosophy about treatment of disordered eating
- descriptions of anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive overeating
- information about how to get help for yourself or for a friend
- a final note about sensitivity to eating issues on campus
Our Philosophy About Treatment
At the Bowdoin College Counseling Service we are committed to the entire student: mind, body, and spirit. We believe it is important to respect each person's rights and needs. We are mindful of the fact that just as disordered eating has multiple sources, it has a multidimensional impact on the student with no two individual's journeys down this path being the same. More detail about the Counseling Service's approach to treating disordered eating, as well as a list of available resources both on and off campus, is available here.
In providing information about eating disorders we want to emphasize what may seem obvious; the important element in all disordered eating is the person, not the symptoms. Each person struggling with disordered eating is unique. Her life has many facets of which her struggle with eating is only one. While lists of symptoms are a necessary part of providing education about disordered eating, it is crucial to stay focused on the most important part of the whole picture, the individual.
The student with anorexia:
- Is thin and believes she needs to lose weight.
- Continues to restrict foods despite not being overweight. This can include a heightened awareness of fat grams and calories.
- Believes that she needs to lose weight even when faced with assurances that she is thin.
- May love cooking for others while eating little herself.
- May complain of feeling "too full" when she eats, even when she has eaten very little.
- May limit her eating to certain kinds of food. Cereal, bagels, plain salads, and vegetables are frequently foods of choice.
- May complain that she is cold, even when no one else is.
- May wear layers of clothes both to stay warm and to hide her body.
- May exercise excessively and not want to miss an exercise session.
- Her hair may be thin and dull and her skin dry.
- May have either irregular or no menstrual periods.
Anorexia can cause permanent organ damage, loss of bone density with resulting fractures, and even lead to death.
The individual who is bulimic:
- Eats large quantities of food (binges) and then forces herself to vomit (purge) as a way of getting rid of the calories consumed.
- Despite the fact that she is worried about gaining weight, she finds it hard to stop eating once she begins bingeing.
- May be very ashamed of her eating patterns.
- May deny that she purges.
- May habitually excuse herself from the table shortly after eating in order to purge.
- May abuse laxatives as another way to lose calories.
- May not be overly thin, and may even gain weight.
- May have frequent sore throats or scraped knuckles from purging.
- May have teeth that become damaged from purging.
Bulimia can have severe physical consequences including weakness, irregular heartbeat, and even heart failure. Bulimia can be fatal.
Compulsive Overeating or Binge Eating Disorder
A compulsive overeater:
- Has periods of eating that feel out of control.
- Doesn't purge.
- Frequently feels ashamed and guilty about her eating patterns.
- Finds it hard to stop her binges even though she wants to.
Compulsive overeating can increase a person's risk of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension.
How To Get HelpAll of the counselors at the Counseling Service are experienced in working with students with disordered eating and body image issues. If you would like to make an appointment call Lindsay Moore, our Administrative Coordinator, at 725-3145, Monday-Friday from 8:30am to 5:00pm. She will be happy to help you. Feel free to let her know if you have preferences (for example: a woman counselor rather than a male) and she will do her best to try to accommodate you. If you would prefer seeing a counselor who isn't on the Bowdoin campus we can refer you to a local clinician. We're aware that coming to counseling can be difficult. We want to do all we can to make your experience as easy and positive as possible.
At other times, if you have an emergency and need to reach a counselor, call security at 725-3500.
How To Get Help For A Friend
One of the questions we are most frequently asked is how to help a friend who might have an eating disorder. While there are no firm guidelines to follow, there are some general suggestions you might consider.
- Put yourself in your friend's shoes. Think how you might feel in the same situation and what would be important to you.
- Choose a time to talk where you won't be interrupted. Choose a place where you have privacy.
- Let your friend know that you are concerned for her well-being. Tell her how important she is to you.
- Be aware that she may feel and act angry or defensive. Respect her feelings.
- If your friend doesn't want to talk about her eating don't force her, let her know that you are available if she changes her mind.
- If she does want to talk remember that it isn't your job to analyze her behavior or solve her problem. You can help the most by listening.
- Encourage her to get professional help. You may want to offer to go with her if that's something she would like. She can see a counselor at the Bowdoin Counseling Service or we can refer her to a private clinician in the area, it's her choice.
- Ask her if she is interested in attending a Warriors meeting. (Warriors is a campus group interested in education and peer support for men and women of all sizes.) Offer to go with her.
- If she isn't open to going for help and you are worried about her, don't agree to keep her problem a secret. While it is important to honor her privacy, it is also important to let someone who can help her know what is happening. An RA, Proctor, Counselor, Dean, or Health Service Nurse can help you decide what to do next. All of these people will keep the information you give them confidential.
- Finally, consider getting support for yourself. Counselors are happy to talk with you about your concerns.
A Final Note
Most students make efforts to be sensitive to the feelings of others. This same sensitivity needs to be shown when it comes to issues relating to food or body image. It is amazing how much we all talk about diets, eating habits, food, and size. The next time you are in one of the dining halls listen to some of the discussions going on around you, only listen from the standpoint of someone who is struggling with issues related to eating. When we think no one is listening other than our friends, value judgments frequently run rampant. Even a seemingly harmless "compliment" to someone who has lost weight can send the message that being thin is desirable and weight loss is good. For someone whose body image may already be shaky, these messages can have tragic consequences.
Be aware of the impact your words may have on others. You never know who might be struggling with these issues.