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Suffering in Silence: The Stigma of Eating Disorders Persists on Campus

A silence has fallen over the discussion of eating disorders among women, as attention is diverted by a widespread fixation on obesity, driving an already stigmatized subject even further into obscurity.

But following the death of Mills alumna Jennifer Boevers of anorexia-related malnutrition in September, concerns have been raised in the community that the problem may run deeper than it appears. As eating disorders disproportionately affect college-aged women — up to 19 percent by some accounts suffer from bulimia nervosa (bingeing and purging) or anorexia nervosa (simply not eating) — the Mills student body is more susceptible overall. Many members of the community are wondering why discussion about this issue has been so tempered.

Rebecca Blackweiss, a freshwoman who initiated eating disorder interventions in high school, says she has “seen the signs” of eating disorders among other first-year students at Mills. She believes that more conversations about the subject would be helpful, but she says she is not surprised that these problems often go unrecognized.

“If you have issues with your weight… you don’t want to expose yourself more. You want to be as secretive as possible,” she says.

The quiet nature of the eating disorder problem reflects both a cultural uncertainty about how to address the psychologically sensitive issue, as well as reluctance in those who suffer to seek help for themselves. Those affected often feel overwhelming shame regarding the disorders, according to a study done by Bernice Andrews, professor of abnormal psychology at the Royal Holloway University of London and co-author of the article “The Relationship Between Shame, Eating Disorders and Disclosure in Treatment.” Most go to great lengths to keep their eating habits private.

“How do you sit down and talk to your friends about vomiting up your food, being obsessed with the numbers on the scale, or systematically chewing up and spitting out a dozen cookies, without ever actually eating one?” asks Evelyn Rodas, a junior who used to struggle with anorexia and bulimia.

“Help is there,” says Jennifer Ziock, a junior who also used to suffer from anorexia, “but the people with eating disorders are prone to not wanting to seek it out and so really someone needs to give it to them, like it or not, and that doesn’t happen so much.”

While many people can recognize the signs of eating disorders, in college settings friends and dorm-mates are often the only people paying attention. Not knowing how to deal with the problem, and not wanting to invade their friend’s privacy, most keep their mouths shut.

Many feel that it is the responsibility of the student’s instructors and advisers to step in.

“I think that people should be trained to watch for these things; teachers, and anyone coming into contact with people of these ages,” says Ziock.

Others argue, however, that few professors are qualified to handle such serious psychological and physical health crises. Ambiguity about who should take responsibility has reinforced the quietness that has recently beset the subject, particularly on college campuses.

“The boundaries have been blurred around eating disorders for college professors about when they should intervene,” says Tracy Weitz, a visiting professor of medical sociology. “They often lack the necessary training.”

The tension and irresolution about how to treat eating disorders on an individual level is part of a broader social hesitancy.

“I think in general, there is a lack of information because people are afraid to talk about it,” says an anonymous student who currently struggles with bulimia and anorexia.

Rodas, who studied the subject as a part of her recovery, agrees. “Because of the stigma associated with eating disorders, they are generally underreported, and even though thousands of women die from eating disorder-related health problems all over the world every year, it’s not seen as a major social problem.”

Many feel that the current cultural obsession with the obesity problem has further diverted attention away from the equally destructive problems of anorexia and bulimia. As the discussion about eating disorders ebbs, some think that people do not appreciate how prevalent they still are.

“The fad part of the eating disorder issue has disappeared,” says Weitz “It’s like we can’t hold the two conversations [about obesity and eating disorders] at the same time.”

But, she asks, “are these two fights a part of the same issue?”

“I think there’s a fine balance between telling people they’re eating too much and that they’re not eating enough,” says Ziock.

Doug Brunnel, president of the National Eating Disorders Association and a clinical psychologist, recently released a statement that “the increased attention on obesity has with it the cost of driving some vulnerable kids in the other direction into eating disorders.” A reference Web site called actually classifies “Fear-of-Obesity” as an eating disorder unto itself, with its own set of symptoms including compulsive dieting and exercise.

Increasingly, eating disorders come under the guise of “staying healthy.”

“Only when they [my parents] started becoming health conscious did my desire to lose weight turn into a phobia of food,” says the anonymous source. “This heightened awareness backfired.”

“The key is education. If people were taught from a very young age to be healthy in the first place, we wouldn’t have so much of a problem either way,” says Ziock.

The lack of attention to eating disorders, with its undertone of social dismissal, may leave the impression that help is not available.

“I don’t think there is any help,” says Blackweiss, as she points out the absence of hotline numbers or support groups on campus.

But Rodas thinks it is out there, “Back in the late eighties and early nineties, when I struggled with an eating disorder, there was very little information available. There is more available, in part because of the Internet, and also because more research has been done and there are more articles in professional journals,” she points out.

The banner across the top of the NEDA home page reads, “Help is available” and indeed, the Web site provides a search engine by which to locate treatment centers anywhere in the United States, including four in Oakland and over 40 in the broader Bay Area.

In addressing the multileveled nature of the issue, Tang Medical Center at Berkeley has a team of physicians, nurse practitioners, nutritionists, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and registered nurses all with special training in the treatment of eating disorders, whose services are available to all students regardless of insurance coverage.

Mills offers help on campus as well, through Counseling and Psychological Services located in the Office of Student Life.

“There is a lot of information we would love to share,” says Health Program Director Cynthia Turner in the Office of Student Life. She encourages students to converse, not only as a more subtle way of confronting a sensitive issue, but also to raise awareness about the problem and what may be done.

“The key is to take a proactive stance,” says Moire Bruin, assistant Dean of Students, urging people to talk early and often about eating disorders that may affect their friends or themselves.

“A lot of it,” says Bruin, “is planting seeds.”

Mills Counseling and Psychological Services: (510) 430-2119 — For help, to make suggestions, or to make an anonymous referral.

Tang Medical Center UHS Nurse: (510) 643-7110

National Eating Disorders Association: