The battle between beauty and bodies
After waking up and going to the bathroom, nothing was more important than what would become an everyday ritual for junior Chrissy Richardson: weighing herself.
“I weighed myself three times a day, and whatever the scale said is how the rest of my day proceeded,” Richardson said. “It had a huge impact on me. Every morning, I had a limit. I was allowed to weigh something. And if I went over my allowance, then I had to plan all the things that I couldn’t eat that day and when I was going to eat and ways that I would avoid eating so that I wouldn’t eat too much.”
This was during Richardson’s sophomore year of college, a time where close to 20 percent of young adults are affected by the psychological issues of an eating disorder. The unrealistic idea of a “skinny girl” can be heavily attributed to the media, according to Jamie Fenton, psychologist and coordinator of eating disorder services at Towson University.
“[Young adults] look to the media of how they should look, how they should be, and that’s not an appropriate source for that information,” Fenton said. “… The images we see are not real and not attainable. So if we’re comparing ourselves to an image that isn’t real, there’s no way we can achieve that and the end result is that we’ll always feel negatively.”
The adjustment to college and the challenge of developing different peer groups can cause distress around food, influencing a student’s ability to function, according to Fenton.
People with a negative body image have a greater likelihood of developing an eating disorder and are more likely to suffer from feelings of depression, isolation, low self-esteem and obsessions with weight loss, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
“Unfortunately, a lot of students still think that eating disorders are a choice or a lifestyle and they don’t realize how incredibly serious they are,” Fenton said. “Towson students are really struggling and their lives are at risk and their friends and their peers don’t realize this is such a serious issue.”
The severe consequences of eating disorders are something Fenton and educators across the country are trying to stress through Feb. 20-26 as Eating Disorders Awareness Week. During the week, the Counseling Center and Body Image Peer Educators are hosting events, speakers and discussion groups on campus. Fenton said she has seen both men and women at Towson struggle with a range of eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.
For Richardson, a disordered thought process about food that manifested from anxiety defined her condition.
Being invited to grab lunch at the Susquehanna, buy treats at a bake sale or have dinner at home doesn’t send most Towson students spinning.
But Richardson meticulously planned out her meal times and what she was allowed to eat in those periods. Even the idea that she could encounter a situation involving food outside her plan made Richardson worry.
“If I was offered food in between the times that I told myself I could eat, it was really stressful,” she said.
“Eating is supposed to be a social thing, a fun thing, and for me it was, ‘I’m not allowed to eat because I didn’t plan to eat right now.’ And it wasn’t fun. It ruined everything.”
A disordered thought process wasn’t completely foreign to Richardson. A year before her unhealthy thoughts about food began, a close friend of Richardson’s was suffering from anorexia. Richardson and a few others confronted the girl’s mother about it. Richardson’s friend was resistant and went on to hide her illness through bulimia. As a psychology major and the president of Active Minds, a mental health advocacy and awareness group at TU, Richardson said she was often angry with herself and felt stupid for succumbing to something she had prior knowledge of.
“I know all the signs and I know all the symptoms and I know a lot of reasons why. And it really doesn’t do any good in that situation, it doesn’t prevent you from feeling that way,” Richardson said. “It didn’t matter how much I knew about how I was feeling, I still felt it.”
Becky Briggs was a part of a group that confronted Richardson about her feelings toward food. Briggs was also part of the group confrontation that occurred a year earlier. While she doesn’t regret intervening on Richardson’s behalf, Briggs said it hurt seeing another friend go through such a disorder.
Richardson, on the other hand, said she felt her friends blew her behavior out of proportion, speaking with her mother and boss behind her back. Confronting a friend or loved one with an eating disorder should come from a caring, rather than accusatory place, according to Fenton, and should always end with encouragement to seek help.
“Students that want to confront a friend should express their concerns in terms of, ‘I care about you, I’m worried about you, I want to help you get assistance, I want to help you get through this,’” Fenton said.
But the feelings of a friend can often get lost in translation.
“They would become moody, yell at me, avoid hanging out in situations that involved food, have all sorts of excuses, have angry outrages, and treat me differently because I was a ‘skinny girl,’” Briggs said. “I felt like being their friend was a constant battle of stepping on eggshells. There’s a lot of forgiving and excuse-making involved in being the best friend of an anorexic. You just have to make sure it’s paralleled with firm love when needed.”
With continuing therapy through Towson’s Counseling Center and outside resources, Richardson now recognizes her disordered thought process and is open with others about what it’s like to feel that way in a society that idealizes staying thin.
“We teach diet and we teach exercise all the time. We don’t teach, ‘You can have a brownie, that’s OK. You just can’t have all the brownies,” Richardson said.