By Jane Bowden
Adrianna Green has struggled with her weight her entire life. After being pressured by her mother, she tried dieting, walking around her neighborhood and exercising with Nintendo’s popular Wii Fit — but nothing worked.
When the sophomore psychology major started to lose weight as a result of her eating disorder, no one seemed concerned. “You look great!” was all she remembers hearing from her friends and family members.
Green is part of the 30 million American adults who will have an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime, a number that’s on the rise for young women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and athletes, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.
As reported by the NEDA, there are a few common types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa (self-starvation and significant weight loss), bulimia nervosa (binge eating followed by vomiting, starvation or other forms of compensatory behavior) and binge eating disorder.
The NEDA identifies the common emotional and psychological symptoms of an eating disorder, which includes “behaviors and attitudes that indicate weight loss,” concerns about body size and shape and appearing uncomfortable when eating around others. A few of the physical warning signs are dizziness and fainting, stomach cramps and feeling cold all of the time.
Although signs of an eating disorder vary from person to person, there is a common misconception that young women are the only people with body insecurity and that in order to have an eating disorder, they must look a certain way — so skinny that their bones stick out of their body.
While studies show that eating disorders affect more women than men, the NEDA reports that “one in three people struggling with an eating disorder is male.” Many men feel pressured by society to maintain the “ideal” male body type, which typically means being muscular and lean.
In many cases, the signs of an eating disorder actually aren’t as obvious. A person can exhibit eating disorder behavior and mentality but not lose or gain the amount of weight that would raise concern in others, while some eating disorders may be overlooked entirely.
“When you are already skinny and you lose a drastic amount of weight, people are concerned,” Green said. “When you are fat and lose 60 pounds in four months, people applaud you. They are happy for you.”
Raised in a Jamaican-American immigrant household, Green says her home life was toxic when she was younger, as mental health was never discussed. If Green and her sisters were unhappy, their mother would tell them to pray to God rather than talk about their feelings.
From an early age, Green’s mother tried to control her diet and body. She recalls her mother frequently asking the doctor how much Green weighed or getting upset when they’d go shopping and Green couldn’t fit into the clothes.
“My parents placed constant concern on my weight, even though I was still really young and had a few pounds of baby fat leftover,” Green said. “It created a huge pressure on what I was eating. I love (my mother) very much, but because she was so hard on me, it made me turn to food for more comfort.”
When Green was a freshman in high school, she began to eat “way too little,” which left her feeling tired and faint.
The following year, she began to eat “too much,” even when she wasn’t hungry, as a way to cope with her repressed emotions. She soon developed binge eating disorder and body dysmorphia disorder, an illness in which an individual has an obsessive focus on perceived flaws in their appearance, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“Because I couldn’t explain what I was feeling…was in a constant binge eating and under-eating relationship… and people were excited for me (when I lost weight), my mental health worsened,” Green said.
According to the Eating Disorder Recovery Center, several factors that can contribute to the development of an eating disorder include genetics, childhood trauma and periods of transition. Like Green, eating disorders can also be triggered or accompanied by other mental illnesses.
“Though some may assume eating disorders are mainly about food and weight, they are often about much more than food,” said Dr. Hue-Sun Ahn, a licensed psychologist and assistant director of the College’s Mental Health Services. “Attempts to control one’s eating and body size and shape are usually only a way one is coping with other underlying issues and distress that are much more complex.”
Junior communication studies major Sydney Smith said she developed an eating disorder when she was a junior in high school after the prospect of going to college and leaving behind her hometown triggered her depression and anxiety. When her feelings began to interrupt her daily life, she subconsciously looked for a way to distract herself — by controlling what and how much she ate.
“I started a diet to fit into my prom dress,” Smith said. “But the diet, which had become a coping mechanism for (my depression and anxiety), quickly spiraled into full-on anorexia. By the end of the month, I had lost (more weight), and by the end of the year, I was (at) the lowest possible weight for my height.”
At first, Smith didn’t acknowledge that she had an eating disorder. What her parents and friends recognized as symptoms of anorexia nervosa, she perceived as dieting.
In today’s diet culture, eating disorder behavior can be disguised by partaking in fad diets, such as intermittent fasting and juice cleanses, as well as frequent dieting and refusal to eat entire food groups, according to the NEDA. The association also reports that “those who dieted moderately were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder,” and with more social media influencers promoting diet shakes and pills, that rate is expected to rise.
Smith, who was seen as the “happy-go-lucky and bubbly child who never stopped smiling,” suddenly felt empty and disconnected from reality, spending many of her days crying and sleeping in “secret rooms” to avoid eating with her friends, she said.
But when Smith attempted suicide at age 17, her life changed forever.
“In that very moment, I felt a survival instinct kick in, and that was the first vibrant and raw emotion I'd felt in months,” Smith said. “It was the day that turned my entire life around.”
With encouragement from her parents, Smith started to see a therapist and psychiatrist, where she was given antidepressants and intensive counseling. By her freshman year of college, she made immense progress, suddenly feeling “like an active part of a wonderful world again,” she said.
“Without professional help, there's no way I'd be where I am now,” Smith said. “Therapy helped me to discover the root of my mental health issues and the insecurities that induced my negative coping strategies. In addition to this emotional help, the antidepressants I was given were a huge component of my progress.”
During her freshman year, Smith also joined MHS’ Food, Mood and You group, which provides “a safe and confidential setting for students who are struggling with their eating, body image and/or exercise,” Ahn said.
“Those who are struggling with eating disorders often wrestle with a sense of shame, isolation and lack of control, not only about their eating but likely also with other areas of their lives,” Ahn said. “Being in a supportive group with others who can understand those similar struggles and learning to have compassion for others and for themselves can be therapeutic and healing.”
Green, who also participated in a Food, Mood and You group, agreed, adding that professional help and support has made a significant positive impact on her mental health.
“(How you get better) may be (by talking to) your friends or parents, but for me, it was a licensed psychologist that started the conversation of what actions are abnormal and unhealthy,” Green said. “It took a lot of internal findings and therapy to be where I am now. Every day is still scary, but I take it one day at a time, and I understand that recovery takes time and it cannot be rushed.”
Another individual who has also found peace in the encouragement of others is Jake Giordano, a junior criminology major and member of the College’s wrestling team. His support system? His teammates.
“My teammates and I all struggle together, and it is comforting to know that I am not alone and that they’re pushing through the same struggles as me,” Giordano said. “My teammates are always there to pick me up when I'm feeling down at practice or after a tough loss, and I am always there for them in the same ways.”
Giordano said that although he didn’t start to cut weight for the sport until he was in high school, he has been aware of his appearance since he started wrestling at age 5.
Today, he follows a strict training routine with his teammates, which includes wrestling, running and lifting once or twice a day. As for his diet, Giordano cuts weight by eating “much less” and not snacking on unhealthy foods, he said.
Although Giordano himself doesn’t identify as having a mental disorder, the NEDA reports that athletes who participate in sports that focus on an individual’s appearance, weight or muscularity, rather than the team as a whole, are more at risk for developing an eating disorder. According to the association, 62 percent of female athletes and 33 percent of male athletes have an eating disorder.
Giordano said everyone on the wrestling team stresses the importance of mental toughness and positivity. Their coach, Joe Galante ’07, also encourages his players to “advocate for (themselves) and talk to someone if (they) are struggling,” Giordano said.
“(Training for wrestling) is very difficult and can get you down, but it makes you mentally tough and teaches you discipline,” Giordano said. “I do try to stay positive as much as I can through a difficult wrestling season to keep my mental game strong. (It’s) all worth it when I get my hand raised after winning a big match.”
While some communities bring a sense of support, others have been known to promote insecurity, comparison and poor body image.
“Gay Twitter” refers to a well-known online platform, where gay men who are “visibly athletic and built” post photos of themselves with captions that read “I look fat” or “I need to work out more,” said James Mercadante, a senior English major. Gay Twitter’s toxic environment often makes Mercadante and other gay men feel like they need to “constantly work on (their) physiques and look a certain way in order to seek validation from everyone.”
Growing up gay in a private school that Mercadante described as “homophobic,” he struggled with depression and anxiety, and didn’t know how to deal with his emotions.
According to the NEDA, “beginning as early as (age) 12, gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens may be at higher risk of binge-eating and purging than heterosexual peers.” Being a victim to bullying, fear of rejection from friends and family members, and internalized negative beliefs about themselves because of their sexual orientation are a few of reasons an individual may develop an eating disorder.
“As a member of the LGBTQ community, I know about the constant feeling of not fitting in,” Mercadante said. “We are constantly trying to prove ourselves towards the heteronormative world and one of the ways we do that is by trying to attain a traditional, masculine image. It’s almost like we're trying to prove our worth to (society and) ourselves.”
Through the support of not only members of the LGBTQ+ community, but rather society as a whole, Mercadante believes change is possible.
“Since we live in such a heteronormative society that celebrates cis-gendered, heterosexual-based images, it would be most beneficial if members of the LGTBQ+ community no longer felt like outsiders,” Mercadante said.
Ahn agreed that progress is only possible if society begins to accept people’s differences, instead of making them feel like they have to change.
“(We need to) help to create a social climate and an environment that embraces people of all sizes and shapes and sees people for more than just what is seen on the outside, valuing all that a person brings to a diverse community,” Ahn said.
If someone thinks a friend is struggling with an eating disorder, Ahn recommends they educate themselves about eating disorders and treatment resources, such as MHS, and then express their concerns in a gentle way, encouraging their friend to seek professional help.
Smith, who was able to heal through the compassion of her friends and family members, said continued therapy, as well as using music, meditation and self-reflection as outlets for her emotions, has helped her mental health the most.
“(It’s important to) keep telling yourself that every day is a new day,” Smith said. “There's no be all end all and there's always a chance to recover. It gets better.”