The competitive and rigorous academic atmosphere at the University of Chicago may make students more susceptible to a problem that’s hard to see and rarely discussed: eating disorders.
“Highly competitive colleges probably have more individuals who are highly competitive and elicit more environmental stress, thus leading to a higher prevalence of eating disorders within certain academic institutions,” said Dr. Daniel le Grange of the department of psychiatry in an e-mail interview.
A faculty member who has published significant research on anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, le Grange currently sits on the clinical and scientific advisory council of the National Eating Disorders Association.
According to le Grange, stress and anxiety can provoke and perpetuate an eating disorder. “Highly competitive environments may significantly raise an individual’s stress and anxiety level, but this may be a relative phenomenon. It may not be competition per se, but instead a perfectionist attitude that contributes to the development of an eating disorder,” he said.
“Since stress and anxiety seem to contribute to the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders, feeling constantly pressured may exacerbate symptoms of an already present eating disorder,” he added.
Although statistics about the U of C were not available, le Grange said evidence suggests that one out of every four college students may have some form of eating disorder. He added that not all of these cases would be considered “full-blown” anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, but might be characterized by such behaviors as “habitual dieting or infrequent binge/purge behavior.”
Dr. Elizabeth Steinhauer, a counselor in Student Counseling and Resource Services (SCRS), said that the college environment can be especially challenging for those “prone to obsessional thinking.”
“Because you guys are busy and studying hard and have lots of demand, if you’re predisposed to worry about stuff, [weight] sometimes ends up being what people worry about,” she said.
According to le Grange, “the development of eating disorder symptoms will most likely depend upon the individual’s past eating behavior and her or his coping strategies, social support, and stress management within the college environment.”
One student in the College—who preferred to remain anonymous—suffered an eating disorder during high school that eventually left the 5-foot-4 girl at 85 lbs. She reflected on the aspects of the college experience that might provoke eating disorders.
“Dining halls do provide breeding grounds for eating disorders,” she said. “Rather than eating a meal, one can eat a little of this, a little of that, to the point where they aren’t actually eating anything at all.”
She said that “competition between girls” might also lead to eating disorders.
Steinhauer echoed her sentiments: “There are unique challenges for people who have eating disorders when they are away from their family and perhaps dealing with dining hall situations for the first time.”
Another “unique challenge” of college life is living with new peers for the first time.
“Being around peers may be a protective factor or perhaps a risk factor, depending on social relationships and quality of friendships that the individual experiences,” le Grange said. “Feeling content and supported by one’s peers and having a strong social network may lessen the influence of eating disorder symptoms, whereas feeling isolated and lonely and having a lack of social support may provoke and intensify eating disorder symptoms.”
But, according to le Grange, college also provides students a good opportunity to seek successful treatment, depending on the severity of the illness.
The anonymous student pointed out that, in some cases, the college environment might even help students resolve eating issues.
“I think that most college students have a certain confidence that high school students don’t,” she said. “It has to do with the lack of cliques, and the fact that not everyone knows your face on the quad. The anonymity gives you are excuse to stand up taller than you might have in high school.”
Le Grange noted that despite their severity, eating disorders can be difficult to identify.
“Individuals who suffer from bulimia may weigh within the average range for their height, and therefore they do not look any different from the norm,” le Grange said. He said that for this reason, it may be difficult to “visibly observe the prevalence of eating disorders” in the College.
“Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” said the anonymous student. “There are a lot of people who, without having full-blown eating disorders, probably devote an awful lot of time to hating their bodies.”
SCRS offers a range of services to people suffering from eating disorders.
“We see people in assessment…[and] offer brief treatment across the board, [including] individual or group therapy,” Steinhauer said. “As recently as summer 2006, [there was] an eating concerns group going.” She said that SCRS also invites those concerned about their friends’ eating habits to make an appointment to talk with a counselor.
Steinhauer said that students who need long-term treatment are referred to the U of C Hospitals system or area private practices.
SCRS also runs an “Eating Disorders” message board on its website, which began two years ago at the suggestion of an undergraduate, to provide a “cyber support group for people who have concerns about their weight,” Steinhauer said.
Le Grange referred students to eatingdisorders.uchicago.edu for information about eating disorders and treatment.