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Reflections on National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

[CW: Eating disorders]

February 21st through 27th, 2022, was National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. This annual campaign aims to educate the public about the prevalence of eating disorders, as well as decrease stigma and offer support to people affected by disordered eating. Eating disorders are considered the most deadly mental illness. An estimated 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder during their lives, with college students being a disproportionately vulnerable demographic. 

Eating disorders continue to surge. Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of eating disorders among adolescents and young adults. Eating disorder diagnosis in adolescents has increased 25% as compared to pre-pandemic numbers, and hospital admissions for female-identifying patients have increased 30%. The pandemic has aligned with a major increase in eating disorders, and there are several possible explanations for this trend.

One aspect of life in the pandemic that has been extremely stressful is the lack of control that many may feel. Lifestyles underwent changes and structure was disrupted, which is a major source of stress. In a global situation that has induced a national reckoning with mental health, it’s highly likely that this environment drove many to disordered eating habits as a way to harness control in a climate where so much felt out of control and uncertain.

Another pervasive factor is the toxic environment that has been created on social media regarding body image. Time spent on screens and on social media platforms has skyrocketed during the pandemic and social media has been an increasingly powerful force in the lives of young, impressionable audiences. Content that promotes unrealistic body standards, unhealthy eating habits, and toxic fitness culture has proliferated on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. During the early stages of the pandemic, Chloe Ting workout programs gained a lot of attention. The aim of her workouts were all very appearance-based short-term health goals, and many engaged due to the enticing promises of “abs in 2 weeks.” Chloe Ting’s 2 week ab workout has amassed over 400 million views on YouTube. Workout programs of this nature have become increasingly popular, yet they are extremely harmful in the landscape of fitness and healthy living. Focusing on aesthetics and shortcuts for achieving a certain body ideal rather than healthy, happy habits creates an environment where toxic relationships with food and fitness will emerge. Additionally, on platforms where one can maintain a degree of anonymity, an environment of harmful comments, encouraging unsustainable eating and exercise habits, and cruel spirals of commenting on other people's bodies and habits has formed. Surges in screen time also result in people staring at their Zoom video for hours on end, which allows them to examine themselves and perhaps project harmful and unrealistic expectations from social media onto their own self image.

Young adults and college students are among the most susceptible demographics to develop eating disorders, with women suffering at disproportionate rates. During a period of lifestyle and body changes, mental health issues and disordered eating may emerge, and these two behaviors are very closely linked. Social media’s prevalence heightens social pressures and propagates content that is detrimental to one’s body image. As the recent rise in social media usage parallels the rise of eating disorders, college students may be receptive to this content.

As eating disorders continue to rise, it is important to advocate for awareness and decrease the stigma. It's hard to say how the gradual return to normalcy will impact current trends, so during this uncertainty, taking proactive steps to promote body positivity will help to combat a continued surge. There are many available resources in the BC community that promote self-love and body positivity:

The Body Project

The Body Project is a “peer-led body acceptance program to help college women resist cultural pressures to conform to the appearance ideal.” This program helps to reduce unsustainable eating habits and encourage positive body image. The Body Project’s program consists of two sessions, a week apart each, over Zoom that seeks to provide young women with tools to combat unrealistic body standards. The Body Project was initially to serve female-identifying students, it has now opened up to include all gender identities. Ways to get involved include attending sessions or becoming peer facilitators of the program. Participants in the program report overwhelmingly positive outcomes in terms of relationships with food and exercise, which speaks to the effective nature of this intervention. The Body Project runs through BC’s Office of Health Promotion, which offers a number of other resources that emphasize personal wellness and healthy lifestyle. 

If You’re Reading This Boston College

IfYou’reReadingThis is a national organization that seeks to “normalize conversations about mental health on campus while offering support, resources, and hope to those struggling in their community” by interviewing students, faculty, and alumni and amplifying their experiences with mental health. Boston College’s chapter can be found on Instagram @ifyourereadingthisbc. This initiative centers around mental health and recently did a feature post for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. IfYou’reReadingThis is a great resource to connect with and empower other students while reducing the stigma associated with mental health. 

CHAARG at Boston College

CHAARG is a health and fitness community for college women with chapters on various college campuses. The aim of this program is to try weekly workout classes, and BC’s chapter is fortunate to have such great access to Boston’s diverse offerings. Fun classes with groups will create positive relationships with exercise and offer strong, empowering communities. 

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