Eating Disorders Colleges and universities around the country are reporting an increased prevalence of eating problems among young female students. Difficulties include obsession with food, starvation dieting, severe weight loss, obesity, and compulsive binge eating, often followed by self-induced vomiting (Hesse-Biber, 1989, p. 71). What are the reasons for eating disorders among college-aged women? It is the purpose of this paper to discuss this question and give an overview of several possible answers, determined following an examination of current psychological literature in this area of concern. The reasons for difficulties around the issues of food and eating are myriad and complex. They touch on every aspect of being female, and no single answer sufficiently explains the phenomenon of college students who overeat or undereat as a response to stress. In her book, Anatomy of a Food Addiction, author Anne Katherine calls eating the “great escape” and pinpoints the vulnerabilities of women to childhood origins (1991, p.
70). She believes that girls are taught that they cannot fight or flee. Unlike boys, who have the outlets of strenuous play and fighting to release anger, girls are taught that they must cope within the difficult situation while remaining there. In the girl-child’s attempts to find solace in a situation from which she cannot escape, she learns that sweet food will release chemicals that soothe her when she is frightened and angry. Thus, she learns rather early in life that food gives her a way to avoid feeling trapped and overwhelmed.
This conditioned response to stress then carries over into adult living, and in situations where the young woman feels overwhelmed, frightened, cornered, confused, miserable, or lonely, the body seeks relief, and the whole organism tries to lead her into a way of release. Even if the woman has made a conscious decision to not overeat in response to stress, the whole person has been deeply trained to eat anyway, and she automatically, unthinkingly reaches for something to eat or drink. This drive for release is almost unstoppable (Katherine, 1991, p. 71). Ms. Katherine describes this strong drive for eating in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–safety and security come far before appearance and artistic taste.
Therefore, if the student feels fear or uncertainty (which are common emotions among college students!, it is natural to reach for substances that she has learned give her a feeling of security and safety. Apparently in women who overeat or undereat, there has often been a childhood background of profound deprivation and emotional deficit. Such individuals learned in their families that they were not wanted, worthwhile, or valued. They did not learn to ask for help or to expect their needs to be met. They did not learn healthy ways to handle conflict, difficult emotions, or disappointments.
They have not learned that the solution to loneliness is to seek friendship. Such individuals may have been severely abused in their homes and have no knowledge of awareness of the abuse (Katherine, 1991, p. 52). This type of woman may have been screamed at as a child when she expressed a need. She has become accustomed to fear.
With such a background, the food addict is a person who expects to only have minimum needs met. She has learned that her needs will probably go unmet, even if she asks, and she adapts. The needs for affection, trust, safety, and honesty do not go away, but they move underground and surface in the adaptive response of food difficulties. Most people who suffer from eating disorders have severe, long-term deprivation in regard to their emotional needs. Leighton C. Whitaker discusses the specific characteristics of the college environment and lifestyle that contribute to the problem of female students with food.
The college environment is similar to a family. It may bring demands, attitudes, support systems or lack of support. There are constant concerns with finances, transitions, the physical structure and atmosphere, as well as relationships with faculty, staff, and the other 1 students. The academic studies themselves may be unfamiliar and difficult at times. Student support services may not contribute any help to the student who has eating difficulties (Whitaker, 1989, p.
117). Going to college is an important transition for most students, and a~sizable number of freshmen experience leaving home for the first college semester as traumatic. The persistent, unrecognized dependency on parents and their lack of experience in making decisions on their own cause problems of functioning in the less-controlled college environment. Living in a dorm or apartment with other college individuals means getting along with others, withstanding the normal comings and goings as students leave school, and such a situation carries within it all the dynamics that contribute to problem eating. These interpersonal situations impact women more than men because women have greater needs for relationships and have been socialized to be care-givers, always sensitive to the needs of others (Whitaker, 1989, p. 118).
For certain vulnerable students who function rather rigidly, the sudden availability of new choices and options may feel unbearable and unmanageable. This type of student may not trust the sorority big sisters or resident hall RA’s and turn their helpless and other negative feelings upon themselves. Students from small communities may feel lost on campus. Women who have used and learned to abuse food since the crib and highchair days learn to misread their bodies’ signals and without therapy or education easily reach for a sweet instead of another potential new friend (Whitaker, 1989, p. 119). Certain practical variables contribute to the young woman’s problems with food. The dorm cafeteria food may be heavy in proteins and fats. Students who study late at night and become hungry cannot access the food services and resort to vending machines or fast food restaurants.
Dorm rooms do not usually have refrigerators, so the young woman cannot provide herself with healthy fruits and vegetables for snacking. In a larger sense, the young female student has not observed others handle stress in a mature way, so she experiences loss of self-esteem and automatically seeks a safe emotional outlet which has brought her relief in the past–food. 5 Several researchers trace difficulties with food and eating to problems in the female student’s family of origin. Edward Abramson found that there is a relationship between childhood sexual experiences and bulimia (1991, 529). Students who suffered from bulimia often came from families characterized by lack of parental affection, negative, hostile, and disengaged patterns of family interaction, impulsive parents, and familial alcoholism.
Families in which the mothers and daughters do not differentiate from each other also showed a positive correlation with anorexia nervosa and bulimia (Friedlander & Siegel, 1990, p. 74). According to Murray Bowen’s theories of family systems, the important task of individuation is denied the young person and the family remains “stuck together.” Such a dynamic is troublesome for the young woman, and she develops poor eating habits as a way of exerting some control in a difficult family that is enmeshed and poorly differentiated. Carol Bailey found that families with low cohesion, low expressiveness, and high conflict were more likely to produce a young woman who is bulimic (1991, p. 272).
An emphasis on achievement and the variable of the mother not working outside the home also has a significant effect on bulimic symptoms. Young women who suffer from bulimia report that their families lacked in commitment, help, and support, and instead exhibited anger and aggression. These dynamics are similar to those mentioned by Anne Katherine. The young woman tries valiantly to cope with the negative effects of such a family background. Research shows that she may ~r.
6 suffer from social phobia, hostility, locus of control problems, depression, and anxiety. Cynthia Bulik found that young anorexic and bulimic women held fears similar to those of social phobics. fears experienced not only in connection with eating or not eating but also in other social …