“It’s complicated.” That’s the response we often hear to the question “what causes an eating disorder?” And it’s true, eating disorders can have their beginnings in many different ways and for many different reasons. Like other mental illnesses, the “cause” isn’t always clear. While we can’t attribute the cause of an eating disorder to any one life event, we can identify patterns.
From what we know, eating disorders do not discriminate. Meaning, they affect all people of all genders of all races of all body types. While it’s essential to recognize this, we will be focusing on women for the duration of this post. However, many of the concepts and concluding resources can be applied to people of varying backgrounds. We also know eating disorders affect people of all ages, from womb to tomb, but many eating disorders first develop during late adolescence, or in the early twenties. Psychologists call these the “emerging adulthood” or “transitional” years; I’m going to call these the “college years.” Many of us can think back to these years; a lot was changing. Perhaps, we were starting college for the first time, living on our own, or exploring our identities and career interests. Our stories certainly differ, but we would likely all agree pressure was put on us to socialize like “normal” but “fun” college students.
We all want to belong. That’s normal and it’s especially true during college. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson referred to this search for community as “intimacy vs. isolation.” It typically occurs between the ages of 18-25, and is a time where individuals pursue strong bonds with others. Sometimes this pursuit is successful, and the individual experiences times of deep connection. Other times, this pursuit goes unfulfilled, and the individual experiences hurtful rejection. Forming these relationships is especially important during this stage of life, so it’s no wonder experiences of euphoric connection or heartbreaking isolation have such lasting impacts. Perhaps, through your experiences, you learned that society accepts you only if you look a certain way, or if you act a certain way. Consequently, you may have learned people accept you only if you don’t look and act other ways. This relational “cat and mouse” dance can be a very damaging one. It communicates a lie: you will only belong if you change something about yourself.
I apologize on behalf of society. I apologize for our media-saturated, narrow beauty lenses. I’m sorry our world believes your body should be scrutinized, that it should “measure up” to some kind of impossible shape or curve. It grieves me that many women have built their self-esteem on this message, falling for the lie that they are only worthwhile if they have a “perfect” body. In one poll of 1,000 women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, which was published in the 1994 edition of Esquire, 54% of respondents said they would rather be run over by a truck than obese. I imagine the numbers have only increased since then. It’s really something isn’t it, that young women are being told their bodies are more important than anything else, to the point where many women learn to fear body fat more than death?
Along with the messages and pressures, the college years are plagued with personal, physical, psychological, social, and cognitive stress. Many students handle this stress well, through social support and positive coping skills, but many others find themselves overwhelmed. Living on their own for the first time, many students are wrestling with significant questions of identity, responsibility, freedom, and self-management. College students may feel stuck: wanting to display independence, but struggling with feelings of isolation and doubt. When confusion is internalized, the need for control and the fear that you’re losing it only grows stronger.
It may seem natural, at this point, for women experiencing these pressures and fears to try and get away from these uncomfortable and unwanted feelings. Again, this is natural. Everyone experiences unwanted feelings, and it’s natural to want them to go away. It’s important to note here that having uncomfortable feelings isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t mean you’re making a mistake. The real problem isn’t that we experience strong emotions, but that we run from them. When we begin believing our feelings are unmanageable, that we must change our feelings before showing them to others, we begin running away from healing and into territory ripe for an eating disorder to bloom and thrive. Shame thrives on secrecy, and eating disorders thrive on shame.
Do you ever feel that way? That you’re losing control of your life? Like you can’t get rid of this anxiety telling you all the ways you’re not perfect? Do you find yourself desperately wanting to hide from yourself or others? Are you afraid your relationship with food or body image is getting out of control? It’s confusing, I know. It’s painful, I know. I want you to know you’re not alone. So, what do you do now?
If you’re reading this and relating to the pressures, the stress, the confusion of belonging, and the fear of rejection... Well, I want you to know there’s hope. I’m not talking about the “fluffy” hope of ignoring your fears, but the brave hope of facing your fears, with the courage to believe that perhaps they aren’t true.
You don’t have to know all the steps at once, it takes just one brave step at a time. The rest of the path will worry about itself until you get there. The following strategies are just one place you can begin or continue your journey toward accepting your body and healing your relationship with food.
COMMUNITY. Surround yourself with positive social media. Media doesn’t have to be only the enemy, you can use positive media outlets to fuel your recovery journey and inspire your healing. This is different for each individual, and it’s ok if you need to take a break from social media at ANY time in your recovery. If you do choose to recruit social media along your recovery journey, NEDA, Eating Recovery Center, and Center for Discovery are great starter threads to keep you motivated and feeling the love.
CONNECTION. Surrounding yourself with people who love you, and who support your recovery, is vital in navigating college life with an eating disorder. In fact, many college campuses hold group meetings resources to help students connect with others in similar situations. If your university has a counseling center, ask them for information on resources, local support groups, or recovery events in the area.
CREATIVITY. I’m a firm believer in the value of art and self-expression for healing. You are the only YOU that will ever exist in the world, so you may as well flaunt it! You can use outlets like drawing, painting, music, or dancing to get to know the unique you, and to show this person to the world. Through these expressive activities, your body is the means by which something is created or cared for. This helps promote positive body image and self-acceptance.
COUNSELING. Facing your eating disorder and body image isn’t something you need to do alone. I repeat, don’t do this alone. Honestly, asking for professional support is one of the bravest and best things you can do for yourself. It’s just one way of communicating to yourself and the world that YOU ARE WORTH HEALING. There are many resources in the Greater Houston area you can reach out to. At Barnhill & Associates Counseling Center we offer an expert approach to support you on your journey toward body positivity and conquering your eating disorder. We’re here to talk with you, listen to you, and help you find the plan that works best for you!
Whatever you do, make sure it’s both personal (meaningful to you) and doable (remember, we’re not trying to build Rome in a day). Support is a single act of courage away, and healing can reach you in the deepest of hurts.
If you’re interested in learning more about Rachel’s work, and the other therapists at BACC, visit http://www.barnhillcounseling.com
Rachel Bailey joined the BACC team in September 2017. Rachel is the co-author of the book "Eating Disorders: Hope for Hungering Souls," and has facilitated therapeutic groups in Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Body Acceptance, Wellness, and Art Therapy. Rachel completed her graduate internship in College Counseling, where she worked with anxiety disorders, Academic Probation, and Personality Disorders at the UNC-Greensboro Counseling Center. Rachel is equipped to work with individuals, couples, and families seeking counseling for eating disorders, relationship/marriage conflict, bereavement counseling, mood disorders, and career counseling. Additionally, Rachel has clinical experience working with survivors of physical, emotional, sexual, and domestic trauma and abuse. To contact Rachel, email Rachel@BarnhillCounseling.com.