It's National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, coordinated by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). With the theme of "Come As You Are," its goal for the campaign is to foster inclusivity in the greater eating disorder community, unify the field of eating disorders, and encourage individuals at all stages of body acceptance to share their stories and connect with others.
As many as 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, according to national survey data estimates. Those disorders can include anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, fasting, compulsive exercising and more. These are serious but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of any age and background — and they can have lifelong consequences and struggles.
These disorder can pose real problems on college campuses, as students are making the transition to adulthood. Dr. Stacey Nye, director of the UW-Milwaukee Eating Disorder Clinic, says the key eating disorders she most commonly deals with are:
- Anorexia Nervosa: restrictive eating, severe weight loss, denial, and distorted body image
- Bulimia Nervosa: binge eating and purging, either by self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise or restricting foods
- Binge Eating Disorder (BED): similar to bulimia, but without the compulsory purging behaviors
"I would say one of the greatest misconceptions is that people are doing it for attention and that they can just eat, and they just don't want to," notes Nye. "We live in a society where when someone loses weight — for any reason — people start complimenting them. So, first it's very reinforced and then they keep going, losing weight and then people start getting concerned and bringing them into treatment."
There is a great sense of shame associated with having an eating disorder, which often delays treatment according to Nye. She notes that people with bulimia wait up to five years before seeking treatment, which can lead to even worse physical complications.
"One of the differences between treating someone with an eating disorder versus treating someone with simply an anxiety disorder would be often there are medical complications involved with an eating disorder," Nye explains. "It's important that the graduate students are involved with primary care doctors or pediatricians and sometimes dieticians. There's often some coordination of care that goes on that doesn't necessarily happen in [other clinics]."
Eating disorders are prevalent in both men and women, but it does tend to affect women more, according to Nye. However, that landscape is changing constantly. "Pressures to be thin and fit really affect all of us, no matter what your gender is," she says.
This is especially true in the advent of social media — creating a comparative landscape instantly accessible to younger generations. "The social comparison has really skyrocketed," says Nye.
Even though many factors contribute to a person's risk of developing an eating disorder or recovering from one, Nye says, "the main thing I really want to stress is, it's really important that you love yourself and love your body no matter what it looks like. Our focus on our bodies as a tool for other people to judge is really concerning."
If you suspect that someone you know could be struggling with an eating disorder, Nye says the best thing you can do is approach them "with kindness and support" to help foster a path toward getting help and recovery.
The UWM Psychology Clinic, UWM University Counseling Services and The Eating Recovery Center are hosting a free screening of the documentary The Student Body on Feb. 28. The program also includes outreach such as free online eating disorder screenings, a panel discussion and a Q&A session with Bailey Webber — the star and filmmaker of the documentary.