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Eating Disorders

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Colleges and universities around the country are reporting an increased prevalence of

eating problems among young female students. Difficulties include obsession with food,

starvation dieting, severe weight loss, obesity, and compulsive binge eating, often

followed by self-induced vomiting (Hesse-Biber, 1989, p. 71). What are the reasons for

eating disorders among college-aged women? It is the purpose of this paper to discuss this

question and give an overview of several possible answers, determined following an

examination of current psychological literature in this area of concern. The reasons for

difficulties around the issues of food and eating are myriad and complex. They touch on

every aspect of being female, and no single answer sufficiently explains the phenomenon of

college students who overeat or undereat as a response to stress. In her book, Anatomy of

a Food Addiction, author Anne Katherine calls eating the "great escape" and pinpoints the

vulnerabilities of women to childhood origins (1991, p. 70). She believes that girls are

taught that they cannot fight or flee. Unlike boys, who have the outlets of strenuous play

and fighting to release anger, girls are taught that they must cope within the difficult

situation while remaining there. In the girl-child's attempts to find solace in a situation

from which she cannot escape, she learns that sweet food will release chemicals that

soothe her when she is frightened and angry. Thus, she learns rather early in life that food

gives her a way to avoid feeling trapped and overwhelmed. This conditioned response to

stress then carries over into adult living, and in situations where the young woman feels

overwhelmed, frightened, cornered, confused, miserable, or lonely, the body seeks relief,

and the whole organism tries to lead her into a way of release. Even if the woman has

made a conscious decision to not overeat in response to stress, the whole person has been

deeply trained to eat anyway, and she automatically, unthinkingly reaches for something to

eat or drink. This drive for release is almost unstoppable (Katherine, 1991, p. 71). Ms.

Katherine describes this strong drive for eating in terms of Maslow's hierarchy of

needs--safety and security come far before appearance and artistic taste. Therefore, if the

student feels fear or uncertainty (which are common emotions among college students!, it

is natural to reach for substances that she has learned give her a feeling of security and

safety. Apparently in women who overeat or undereat, there has often been a childhood

background of profound deprivation and emotional deficit. Such individuals learned in

their families that they were not wanted, worthwhile, or valued. They did not learn to ask

for help or to expect their needs to be met. They did not learn healthy ways to handle

conflict, difficult emotions, or disappointments. They have not learned that the solution to

loneliness is to seek friendship. Such individuals may have been severely abused in their

homes and have no knowledge of awareness of the abuse (Katherine, 1991, p. 52). This

type of woman may have been screamed at as a child when she expressed a need. She has

become accustomed to fear. With such a background, the food addict is a person who

expects to only have minimum needs met. She has learned that her needs will probably go

unmet, even if she asks, and she adapts. The needs for affection, trust, safety, and honesty

do not go away, but they move underground and surface in the adaptive response of food

difficulties. Most people who suffer from eating disorders have severe, long-term

deprivation in regard to their emotional needs. Leighton C. Whitaker discusses the specific

characteristics of the college environment and lifestyle that contribute to the problem of

female students with food. The college environment is similar to a family. It may bring

demands, attitudes, support systems or lack of support. There are constant concerns with

finances, transitions, the physical structure and atmosphere, as well as relationships with

faculty, staff, and the other _ 1 students. The academic studies themselves may be

unfamiliar and difficult at times. Student support services may not contribute any help to

the student who has eating difficulties (Whitaker, 1989, p. 117). Going to college is an

important transition for most students, and a~sizable number of freshmen experience

leaving home for the first college semester as traumatic. The persistent, unrecognized

dependency on parents and their lack of experience in making decisions on their own

cause problems of functioning in the less-controlled college environment. Living in a dorm

or apartment with other college individuals means getting along with others, with standing

the normal comings and goings as students leave school, and such a situation carries

within

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