This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week in Canada: an annual effort by groups across the country to educate the public about eating disorders and body image issues. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), the aim of the week is “to ultimately prevent eating disorders and body image issues while reducing the stigma surrounding eating disorders and improving access to treatment.”
The week-long event is promoted by the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC). According to NEDIC representative Emily Pam, “we take for granted the idea that women – and men, too – should look a certain way… It sort of gets lost that eating disorders are a really serious problem and it comes from, in some part, trying to live up to a certain cultural ideal.”
Thus, promoting awareness of eating disorders often includes de-bunking the myths and unrealistic body image ideals that popular media promotes. According to NEDIC’s website, “the media doesn’t cause eating disorders, but they send out the clear message that you should be thin. They keep showing or telling us certain lies about women, such as ‘You can’t and shouldn’t be happy with yourself unless your body looks exactly like the thin ideal.’”
Supermodel Kate Moss, for example, is 5’7” and weighs around 100 pounds, which is 30 per cent below what is widely considered ideal body weight and meets the critical body mass index for anorexia. Further, according to the Renfrew Center Foundation, only 5 per cent of women have the body type seen in most advertising: tall, genetically predisposed to being thin, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, long-legged and usually small-breasted. In fact, Hollywood sex symbol Marilyn Monroe wore around a size 12, far from today’s projected ideal.
Reflecting this concern, NEDIC has made “celebrating our natural sizes” the slogan for the week.
NEDA reports that Americans spend more than $40-billion on dieting and diet-related products each year, and the diagnosis of eating disorders has been growing at unprecedented rates in the past two decades, with as many as ten million females and one million males diagnosed with an eating disorder.
The need for greater awareness around eating disorders is particularly relevant for university students. The website of McGill’s Eating Disorder Program (EDP) claims that “university life may be a prime breeding ground for eating disorders,” citing a Princeton University study which found that “among patients with lifelong eating disorder problems, 53 per cent say that their disorders first emerged during college.”
According to Randi Fogelbaum, Director of the Eating Disorder Program (EDP) at McGill, “university is a huge transition point in somebody’s life.” Students must become more independent while still managing schoolwork and making new friends; fear of the dreaded “Freshman 15” may add additional stress. These are all factors that increase students’ risk of developing an eating disorder.
Disordered eating comes in many forms. The most commonly known are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa involves sudden and drastic weight loss driven by efforts to change weight or shape, and often includes a restrictive diet and severely distorted body image. Bulimia nervosa involves cycles of binging on excessive amounts of food and then purging, which can include vomiting, laxative use, excessive exercise, fasting, or the use of diet pills. Binge-eating disorder, on the other hand, is characterized by binge-eating episodes that may not be accompanied by purging, and are “marked by a large degree of shame and guilt,” according to the EDP website.
“Eating disorder not-otherwise-specified” is a diagnosis in which an individual may not meet all of the criteria for anorexia or bulimia, but still exhibits disordered eating behaviors.
The EDP, housed at McGill Mental Health Services in the Brown Student Services Building, aims to address eating disorders in the McGill community by helping students discover healthier alternatives while addressing the underlying issues that cause disordered eating. The clinic takes a multidisciplinary approach to treatment, offering individual therapy, group therapy and support programs, physical health monitoring, and nutritional consultation and meal support. The EDP also offers public education services and support for family and friends of individuals with eating disorders.
According to Fogelbaum, the clinic sees approximately three to four new patient assessments each week, and has approximately 100 new referrals each year. The EDP also includes a group of about ten student volunteers who focus on enhancing awareness of eating disorders and promoting a positive body image in the McGill community.
According to Sam Neuberg, a member of the program’s student volunteer group, awareness is an integral component of the work they do. “Students should know that they have the opportunity to seek treatment and therapy here,” he said. “If it’s not widely raised on campus then how are they supposed to get help?”
Fogelbaum added, “It’s not just about advertising our program. It’s about really reaching out to the university population to keep them talking about the importance of building self-confidence and having a positive body image.”
As the EDP tries to fulfill its mission to increase awareness and foster discussion on eating disorders and body image, getting people to talk about these issues has often posed a challenge. According to Fogelbaum, eating disorders can be a difficult topic to breach, and as a result, they are often misunderstood.
Society’s stigmatization of eating disorders also plays a role. Neuberg recalled how many students avoided the EDP table at activities night. “A lot of the time people see our posters and run away…or they’ll make a joke like ‘I guess this is the table that doesn’t have any candy,’” he said. “So it’s either offensive in a humour-based way, or in a stigmatized ‘I-don’t-want-to-get-near-you’ kind of way.”
For this year’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week, the EDP is hoping to make its outreach more effective by partnering with other groups that have common interests and goals. This week, they’ll be hosting discussion groups with Queer McGill and McGill’s fraternities, hoping to reach a larger audience and reduce the stigmatization associated with eating disorders.
The joint presentation with Queer McGill – which took place at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday in the SSMU clubs lounge – addressed body image and eating disorders in queer communities. The discussion with the fraternities will focus on the link between eating disorders and substance abuse.
Other events this week will include a screening of the film America the Beautiful on Tuesday evening in the Brown Building, and two bake sales. The EDP will also be tabling around campus all week, with information on eating disorders, body image issues, prevention, and how to help a friend who may be struggling with disordered eating.
Despite the challenges faced by awareness groups and by individuals struggling with eating disorders themselves, there is reason to be hopeful for recovery.
According to Fogelbaum, while university may be a likely period to develop an eating disorder, “it’s also the best time in your life to be able to create change and get help, and deal with those problems.”