College-age students encounter vital developmental
and social challenges that inform personal identity and relationships.
Sexual harassment and intimacy violence, drug abuse, eating disorders,
sexually transmitted diseases, as well as sexual and racial identity
issues are pronounced in college. As cultural dis-ease filters into
the campus climate, students are challenged to make healthful choices
and to become their own advocates, so that they may graduate into
the world emboldened.
Bold Print produces educational materials to explore
the connection between campus mores and wellness among students.
Founded by sisters Clara and Catherine Baker, Bold Print promotes
student health through consciousness-raising, cultural criticism,
media literacy, and activism. Bold Print embraces a holistic view
of health that encompasses relationships, institutions, lifestyle
choices, violence and culture. Bold Print aims to alleviate shame
and isolation, to foster tolerance and celebrate diversity, to build
internal resilience, and to empower students.
empty stomach is not a good political advisor."
- Fortune Cookie
Since bulimia was detected on a college campus in
the late 1970's, awareness about eating disorders has increased
considerably. Many students seek relief at college health and counseling
centers. A more progressive therapeutic milieu offers an array of
specialized services and promotes prompt identification, referral,
and treatment. While health providers address the problem in individuals,
however, the precursors to these problems, such as gender role conflicts,
dieting, sexism, the idolization of thinness and the vilification
of fat, go largely unexamined.
prevalence is difficult to quantify, due to changing criteria for
the problem, as well as shame and secrecy which often surround eating
problems. Data varies, but reports using stringent criteria indicate
that anorexia affects 1%-3% of the United States population, and
closer to 5% of college students, while symptoms of bulimia afflict
up to 20% of college-age women. Anywhere from 12%-33% of college-age
women use vomiting, diuretics, and laxatives on a regular basis.
Close to 50% of college students report frequent episodes of binge
eating. Most students -- females and males across race and class
-- are plagued by body insecurities. These manifest in a range of
disordered attitudes and behaviors, such as poor body image, yo-yo
diets, compulsive exercise, steroid abuse and fabricated food allergies
resulting in psychosomatic complaints.
The move from home to college is a stressful transition,
a period when eating problems frequently begin or worsen. When students
go off to college, they are challenged to develop a personal identity
separate from their families. Vital concerns about staying connected
and seeking independence are played out, often through eating. Newfound
autonomy can feel exhilarating as students encounter limitless academic,
social and sexual options. It can also feel overwhelming. Students
may be on their own eating schedule for the first time. Erratic
meals and incessant snacking, the consumption of alcohol and marijuana,
changes in activity levels, and sedentary studying all contribute
to weight fluctuations. Managing finances can be taxing for students
who juggle their studies with odd jobs to afford tuition, books,
and living expenses. Retreating into narrowly focused eating patterns
can be a way to control the many challenges that mark this tumultuous
Forming an identity
is complicated by conflicting messages about gender roles. While
shifts in social attitudes support women who aspire in academia
and on the career path, women are still socialized in traditional
female roles to look good and to please others. For females, a changing
identity in academia and in the workplace filters into ambivalence
about sexual roles. While the sexual double standard persists on
college campuses, women are attempting to disentangle their sexual
desires and relational needs from the dominant mores. Women receive
mixed messages about attracting male sexual partners and withholding
sexually. Whether grappling with sexual intimacy, orientation, experimentation
or intimidation, an eating disorder enables a student to place a
temporary hold on these concerns.
a social identity is critical, as is peer acceptance. Anonymity
among peers underscores a focus on appearance, since attributes
such as humor and intelligence are not immediately evident to the
eye. The semi-closed nature of many college campuses distorts the
actual make-up of society in terms of age, race, class, and body
size. In a homogenous student body, pressures to conform are even
greater. An anorexic body is idolized by some peers and blatantly
glamorized by advertising. Although bulimia is less admired, gorging
and purging, including compulsive exercising, are sometimes modeled
and practiced collectively among college students.
In the midst
of changes in identity during adolescence, students often feel desperate
to fit in, rather than to question societal values. The body becomes
a measure of self-value and social worth, particularly when students
feel socially detached. Students often spend more time relating
to their computers than to real people. Food provides a substitute
-- a friend and nurturer -- to ease the loneliness. For compulsive
eaters, weight gain may bring relief from social expectations and
competition; uncontrolled eating may function as a protest against
narrow standards of femininity. Weight loss, conversely, offers
the hope for peer approval. For most sufferers, the eating disorder
fills a void in identity, as well as an emotional hollow.
Treatment of college eating problems must involve
both the afflicted student and the campus culture. While treating
the student is a distinctly personal undertaking, the latter is
political. Cultural influences, emphasized on a college campus,
are not merely catalysts for eating problems; they create the landscape
that nourishes and harvests body obsessions. Once cultural ideals
are internalized, they become mere symptoms for complex psychological
issues -- students are directed to treatment to deal privately,
as though the conflicts reside in individual psyches alone. The
eating disorder as a political manifestation turns apolitical. Meanwhile,
contexual issues that contribute to body disturbances, such as feelings
of vulnerability due to a lack of safety on campus and real experiences
of violation, alienation from peers, intimidation in classrooms,
racism, sexism, and homophobia are rarely examined.
tertiary prevention essentially involve detecting and treating sufferers.
A treatment team, in-service trainings of health care providers,
and workshops for faculty, coaches, and resident advisors are all
vital to preventing eating problems from progressing. Short-term
treatments, conserving of time and resources in a college setting,
are inadequate. Students need to compliment these treatments with
feminist-informed activism to address ingrained practices outside
of the therapy room, and supportive focus groups to more fully explore
the function of eating symptoms.
to create countercultures that affirm self-acceptance at every size.
Typically, college students are hungry to take in knowledge and
new experiences. In the classroom, they are exposed to a variety
of ideas, and encouraged to think critically. Students also need
to apply critical persepectives when filtering through the barrage
of media messages about the body and self-care. Group consciousness-raising
among students about the culture of eating problems can enhance
feelings of efficacy and connectedness. Activism should underscore
the ego dystonic aspects of eating disorders, illuminating the physical,
financial, social, and academic costs that override any benefits
of striving for an unnatural body type.
A systems approach
is needed to treat the campus culture. Primary prevention of eating
disorders does not involve talking about the actual symptoms. Rather,
prevention entails a dialogue about the connection between media
culture, social disease, and disordered eating. We are beginning
to relate eating disorders to issues of power and inequity, as well
as feelings of relational dissociation and social contagion in a
college setting. As students and college staff engage in this intimate,
reflective conversation, we are forging new relationships -- with
each other, with the culture, and with our bodies.
P.O. Box 230360
New York, NY 10023