The Nitty Gritty

Tell me, who hasn’t looked the mirror and thought, “If only I could change this {insert body part here}” and proceed to fantasize about a slimmer, more ‘perfect’ version of themselves? We all do it at one time or another and for some it can be a fleeting thought with no real consequences. For the rest of us, it’s a burden that distracts and can just drive you mad as you try to figure out what in the world you can do to make that mirror your friend and hopefully make that fantasy a reality.

One of the reasons I gravitated towards nutrition was because I found myself in front of that mirror many times thinking just how much I wanted to change, well…everything.  Like many young women, I struggled with unrealistic body image expectations that plagued me constantly.  I’d go through phases where I could just shrug it off and curse the magazines for making me feel so bad, but inevitably I’d go right back to square one when I’d skip meals or cry that I didn’t look like whoever graced the cover of Cosmo that month. This led to periods of binge eating alternating with not eating at all (thankfully no purging after an unpleasant one-time experience) and a generally negative and unhealthy image of myself. I like to think I’m a strong, self-possessed woman who doesn’t take other people’s crap, especially back in those days when I was heavily involved in school and proactive in my community. I could rationally argue that it was insane to follow society’s beauty rules and that we should all just ignore them, but when I was alone it was a different story. It was extremely difficult for me to reconcile what I thought about myself inwardly versus what I saw in the mirror. Suddenly, my self-worth weighed more heavily (pun intended) on the scale and less on my intelligence or who I was as a person. It’s taken me a long time to move past unrealistic expectations, embrace my body, and develop healthier eating and exercise habits that focus more on how I feel rather than my reflection. That said, it’s still something I find myself thinking about in varying degrees as I try to maintain my health for the right reasons.

For all you number lovers, here are some stats regarding eating disorders among students in the US courtesy of ANAD (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders):

• 91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting. 22% dieted “often” or “always.”
• 86% report onset of eating disorder by age 20; 43% report onset between ages of 16 and 20.
• Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents.
• 95% of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.
• 25% of college-aged women engage in bingeing and purging as a weight-management technique.
• The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15-24 years old.
• Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
• In a survey of 185 female students on a college campus, 58% felt pressure to be a certain weight, and of the 83% that dieted for weight loss, 44% were of normal weight.

My most difficult time was during my college years at Penn and I found out quickly that I wasn’t alone, as you can tell from the numbers above. I heard all of the statistics and  was advised during the initial orientation spiel:”Make sure to use campus health services if you’re struggling with disordered eating or nutrition issues…Consult a medical professional if you need help with your diet…Join our student groups to find peers to talk to…” Yes, all very neat and tidy and resourceful. But how many people did I know actually use those services? How many of my peers felt comfortable talking about their body image issues outside of their closest friend, if at all? Even more importantly, how many sought treatment?

As I begin to understand my role in the world of nutrition and public health, I decided to look back at my personal experiences and what avenues I was able to explore as a student interested in self-improvement. Back in college I was lucky that I had a very strong circle of friends who I could turn to for support, and I still do to this day. That allowed me to start tackling my own issues privately while developing a strong desire to do what I could for others on campus. But what about the students who don’t have a trusted friend and are in need of both information and support?

I came across this article recently in Science Daily, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120813130722.htm#.UDL7FK29BuI.email  that described a new study by researchers at the University of Missouri which analyzed college-aged women and how they prioritized appearance over nutrition when they thought about their bodies. This is hardly ground-breaking news to me since I knew very few people who thought about nutrition or health while they ‘dined’ on Diet Coke for dinner. But it was fascinating for me to read about how these researchers were able to take the results from these focus groups and apply them creatively with a play about women’s body images. What an impressive way to visualize the issues and encourage conversation amongst the viewers, some of whom may be coping with the very situations that were dramatized on stage.

It reminded me of one of the groups I was in during college called GUIDE: Guidance for Understanding Body Image and Eating. It was a safe space for us to discuss how we coped with body image issues on campus while also initiating programs or events. I put together a panel discussion that reviewed body image issues among minority women on campus which led to an interesting debate about socioeconomic status and how minority health issues like obesity and diabetes are exacerbated by an overall lack of food and exercise choices due to a limited income or access to resources. This was then crossed with the campus trend of disordered body image and the prevalence of eating disorders across the student body and how minority students coped with both issues in their respective communities. I came out of that panel feeling satisfied that I was able to facilitate a discussion, but also pensive. I had new questions to ask and new ideas to explore. It’s a complicated issue with no one simple answer. More importantly, I began to realize that challenging societal inequities by lambasting the diet industry or the unrealistic body and beauty ideals marketed to younger people was a close-ended approach. Debate is good. Dialogue is great. But the real success lies in positively reaching out to the one or two people in those sessions that can look in the mirror afterwards and not be at war with themselves anymore.

The important thing to remember is that disordered body image and eating disorders can start young and stick with you and if you don’t challenge yourself to be honest and seek help from a friend, relative, or medical professional, the damage can be irreparable. Programs and student groups like GUIDE or the interactive theatre at the University of Missouri are critically important resources for young students to turn to because they’re run by their peers and can potentially provide a safe space where they can begin to express themselves and heal. I can only hope that more campuses and communities can adopt a similar strategy to address these issues, increase awareness, and inspire future leaders.

I thought that once I got a little older and moved past school that I’d get over the body image issues as well. It was naive, now that I think about it, especially since I understand that it doesn’t really work that way. Whether I was 17,  20, or 26 years old, I couldn’t expect to feel better without making the effort to be more honest with myself to address the underlying causes for why I have spent so much time unhappy with my appearance. I needed to say it out loud to myself and to those I trust. And then I needed to embrace a healthier attitude that stopped pushing my criticism inward.  It’s a process and a journey, much like this blog. I still find my thoughts inching across that line I drew in the sand several years ago and it takes practice and patience to be able to step back and say, “No, not that way.” Reading other people’s blogs and articles about how they’re challenging social norms and changing themselves in the process continually inspires to push further and reach out in whatever way I can to those around me. I’m using my network to create tangible change.  I hope that one day people can feel they can approach me with their concerns and that I’ll be in a position to help. For now, it helps me to just have you all read and listen.

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11 thoughts on “The Nitty Gritty

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  1. Oh how I can can relate to this post! I am going on 38 in November. I have struggled with so many of the above issues for well over 20 years. Is is a constant struggle and something that never truly leaves you. Anorexia, bulimia, not liking the image I see in the mirror and a laundry list of other things. The craziest of all of this is that I was 120 lbs at 5’9. Now that I am getting older and my body has changed there is still a taunting voice that I have to battle. I have had help, I had and have support but it is such an innate struggle and those who have been there know exactly what I mean. I wish that no girl would ever feel the way that I still feel some days. ❤

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