“To be a success as a girl and then as a woman, I learned early that I was supposed to be obsessively self-centered, scrutinizing every pore, every gesture, every stray eyebrow hair, eradicating every flaw, enhancing every asset, ” Susan J. Douglas writes in Where the Girls Are.
The book was written in 1962, but her words echo in statistics that still indicate an image-obsessed American culture in 1998.
Jen, a GW student who will be referred to by her first name only, became anorexic during high school. Her troubles began when she visited her doctor for a routine check-up.
“My doctor told me that I was taller than 90 percent of the women my age and heavier than 75 percent, and I thought that was right because it was proportionate,” Jen recalls. “Then she said that I could afford to grow a couple inches and not gain any weight. And my mom said that I could afford to lose 20 pounds.”
Jen was 5-6 and weighed between 130 and 140 pounds. Advice from her doctor and mother, she says, left her with “absolutely no confidence.”
Around this time, some of her friends also became concerned about their weight. Jen and one of her best friends began starving themselves. Each day as they walked to lunch together, they compared weight.
Jen stopped eating and exercised obsessively. She dropped to 120 pounds too quickly, and her mother became concerned.
“What didn’t help was that everyone noticed my friend was losing weight, and no one noticed me. I actually lost twice as much weight as she did. I wanted the attention, and she was still getting it,” Jen says. “But I found confidence and tested eating again when I realized that I was maintaining my weight at 120-125 pounds. But even now when I find my weight creeping a little over where it is supposed to be, I will stop eating for a couple of days at a time.”
Jen says that she still “inspects” every girl she meets and immediately compares herself to them. She also says that she feels comfortable with her body only when she has a boyfriend.
“The second there is no one around, I become so self-doubting and so insecure, and I lose my confidence,” Jen confesses. “Getting attention really does help. I keep hoping that I will look in the mirror and for once think maybe that’s not so bad.”
Approximately half a million people are diagnosed with disordered eating at any given time, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Students are among those suffering, said clinical psychologist Dr. Bill Pinney of the University Counseling Center.
The patients have a distorted body image and, as a result, develop dangerous eating habits.
Disordered eating includes conditions such as anorexia nervosa, a disease in which victims starve themselves, and bulimia, a disease characterized by binging on large amounts of food and purging.
There is no way to know how many students suffer from eating disorders at GW. To maintain the anonymity of patients, the University does not keep statistics.
“It’s a significant problem. By the time students seek help they often have been dealing with this for a long time. There’s an even larger group that doesn’t seek help,” explains Dr. Ellen Minerva, director of the primarily outpatient Eating Disorder Program.
According to studies done by the American Psychiatric Association, 95 percent of those with eating disorders are females between the ages of 12 and 25. Student Health’s Susan Haney says college is a time when many women start to suffer from chronic disordered eating.
According to a Parade Magazine poll last year, a majority of Americans said their number one health concern is weight, demonstrating that even those without disorders worry about their eating habits and body images.
“The media with the constant images, with the Victoria’s Secret catalogues lying around my house, and the women on television, I was always comparing my body to theirs,” Jen says. “I really began to think that I was the odd one out and that I was doing something wrong.”
Stephanie Kirchgaessner, a varsity crew team member, says she does not blame the media for societal body image problems. “I think women put pressure on themselves to fit an ideal, but it’s a pressure they put on themselves, not placed there by outside sources,” Kirchgaessner says. “It’s easier to focus on eating as opposed to self-esteem. Who wants to be up at night asking, `Who am I?’ “
But Pinney insists society does have a negative impact on body images. “A great deal of societal pressure is placed on women, in particular, to define themselves in terms of what their bodies look like,” he says.
These problems may worsen in athletic women. The bodies of female athletes inevitably become their focal point. But, like many women, Kirchgaessner says she feels torn between being feminine and being strong.
“It’s true that as an athlete, your body becomes a machine that performs for you and, though that may drive you to work harder, it makes you extremely conscious of everything you eat and how it may effect you,” Kirchgaessner says. “But who says being feminine doesn’t mean having strength? Who says it’s related to your weight?”
Angela, who wished to be referred to by her first name only, plays varsity volleyball for GW. “When I go to class after practice, I sometimes feel funny,” Angela says. “Most of the girls here dress alike and try to look good all the time. You could say that everyone here wears the same black pants.”
Certain symptoms indicate a person needs treatment, but the disorder must first be diagnosed.
“Is this person falling below normal weight level? Beyond that, the amount of time they spend worrying about weight, the amount of time they spend counting calories and, certainly, if they’re distorting their body image, one should worry,” Haney says. “Purging under any circumstance is never normal and is cause for concern.”
Making poor choices about dieting and forgetting the average person needs 2000 calories a day can lead to disordered eating, Haney says.
“Most people have a very unrealistic calorie intake goal. By getting 1000-1500 calories a day, you’re slowing your body down and setting yourself up to binge, which can lead to bulimia,” Minerva says. “You also slow down your metabolism, which is only temporary, but it causes people to fear gaining again.”
GW students concerned about disordered eating or their diet can seek advice at the Counseling Center or Student Health. The Women’s Exercise Research Program also offers assistance for students diagnosed as anorexic or bulimic. The group provides individualized help and personal fitness trainers.
February is Eating Disorder Awareness month and February 23-28 will be Eating Awareness Week at GW. Free screening and information will be offered on campus throughout the week.