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 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, withstanding the normal comings and goings as students leave school, and such a situation carries within it all the dynamics that contribute to problem eating. These interpersonal situations impact women more than men because women have greater needs for relationships and have been socialized to be care-givers, always sensitive to the needs of others (Whitaker, 1989, p. 118).
For certain vulnerable students who function rather rigidly, the sudden availability of new choices and options may feel unbearable and unmanageable. This type of student may not trust the sorority big sisters or resident hall RA’s and turn their helpless and other negative feelings upon themselves. Students from small communities may feel lost on campus. Women who have used and learned to abuse food since the crib and highchair days learn to misread their bodies’ signals and without therapy or education easily reach for a sweet instead of another potential new friend (Whitaker, 1989, p. 119).
Certain practical variables contribute to the young woman’s problems with food. The dorm cafeteria food may be heavy in proteins and fats. Students who study late at night and become hungry cannot access the food services and resort to vending machines or fast food restaurants. Dorm rooms do not usually have refrigerators, so the young woman cannot provide herself with healthy fruits and vegetables for snacking. In a larger sense, the young female student has not observed others handle stress in a mature way, so she experiences loss of self-esteem and automatically seeks a safe emotional outlet which has brought her relief in the past–food.
Several researchers trace difficulties with food and eating to problems in the female student’s family of origin. Edward Abramson found that there is a relationship between childhood sexual experiences and bulimia (1991, 529). Students who suffered from bulimia often came from families characterized by lack of parental affection, negative, hostile, and disengaged patterns of family interaction, impulsive parents, and familial alcoholism. Families in which the mothers and daughters do not differentiate from each other also showed a positive correlation with anorexia nervosa and bulimia (Friedlander & Siegel, 1990, p. 74). According to Murray Bowen’s theories of family systems, the important task of individuation is denied the young person and the family remains “stuck together.” Such a dynamic is troublesome for the young woman, and she develops poor eating habits as a way of exerting some control in a difficult family that is enmeshed and poorly differentiated.
Carol Bailey found that families with low cohesion, low expressiveness, and high conflict were more likely to produce a young woman who is bulimic (1991, p. 272). An emphasis on achievement and the variable of the mother not working outside the home also has a significant effect on bulimic symptoms. Young women who suffer from bulimia report that their families lacked in commitment, help, and support, and instead exhibited anger and aggression. These dynamics are similar to those mentioned by Anne Katherine.
The young woman tries valiantly to cope with the negative effects of such a family background. Research shows that she may suffer from social phobia, hostility, locus of control problems, depression, and anxiety. Cynthia Bulik found that young anorexic and bulimic women held fears similar to those of social phobics. fears experienced not only in connection with eating or not eating but also in other social situations. They also felt insecure about their body shape and size (Bulik, Beidel, & Duchmann, 1991, p. 210~. Another study shows that depression, anxiety, and hostility all are associated with bulimic behavior (Rebert, Stanton, & Schwarz, 1991, p. 500). The young student who experiences extreme mood swings attempts to control the emotions through a destructive cycle of overeating and purging for relief and release.
One study shows that students with eating disorders are likely to come from dysfunctional families but raises the question about why some people adapt to such stress in other ways and do not become overeaters or undereaters. The severity of the eating difficulty was apparently not related to the severity of the family disturbance (Stieger, Liquornik, Chapman, & Hussain, 1991, p. 512). Apparently this area deserves more research to determine the more exact relationships between types of family problems and the resulting eating disorders.
One group of college women participated in a college study which found that those with eating disorders rated higher on body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, child-like nature, and low self-esteem (Beren & Chrisler, 1990, p. 198). However, the study did not find any relationship between any particular personality type and eating disordered behavior. The tests used for the study were the Eating Disorders Inventory, the Texas Social Behavior Inventory, the Social Desirability Scale, and the Bem Sex-Role Inventory. Another study examined the degree to which the eight subscales of the Eating Disorders Inventory compared with the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory). This particular study, as others reported, found that female university students who had eating difficulties tended to also have complaints of anxiety, depression, and other symptoms (Anderson & Meshot, 1992, p. 253)
Some writers suggest that the prevalence of eating disorders among female college students is not a new phenomenon but one that is receiving wider recognition because students are more open about psychological matters (Grayson & Medalie, 1989, p. 100). Students of the 1980’s and 1990’s are more open and tolerant. However, student populations are diverse, and as other authors have r~eported, parental pressures can be great, causing students to seek adaptations to stress. Medalie believes that one of the causes of stress among campus females is the softening of gender roles and less rigid mores in the area of sexual behavior. Often the students of today have free access to each other in coed dorm living arrangements, much different from the more protected living situations of past generations.
Sharlene Hesse-Biber finds, as have other researchers, that eating disorders among college women are fairly strictly genderbased (1989, p. 89). Few men adapt to stress with variations in eating behavior. This finding correlates with that of Anne Katherine who believes that women are socialized at a young age to internalize problems and try to cope within the difficult situation rather than fight it or leave it. Hesse-Biber also purports that young women are more susceptible to cultural influences on the type of appearance that is desired for women-ultra-slender. Also the character trait of perfectionism was apparent on those women who took the Eating Disorders Inventory for the Hesse-Biber study. She believes that the eating difficulties of college women must be understood in the cultural context of pressures for attractiveness and thinness.
Myrna Friedlander and Sheri Siegel agree with other findings that the constellation of difficulties associated with eating problems relate to the student’s family background. Many college women who seek counseling for assistance with eating disorders have problems in their relationships with their mothers. These students experience dependency conflicts, a diminished sense of individuality, beliefs about personal ineffectiveness, qualities of distrust and immaturity, and an inability to distinguish between emotion and hunger tFriedlander & Siegel, 1990, p. 77). The difficulty in determining whether she is hungry or lonely, hungry or tired, hungry or afraid, greatly increases the chance that such a student will eat instead of meeting the emotional need in a healthier way.
The young female student with eating problems feels worthless and inadequate. She has a poor sense of personal control. She may be hypersensitive and feel merged with others. She is unable to regulate herself and may be grandiose, exhibitionistic, even tyrannical. This type of student likely comes from a dysfunctional background, one in which individual differentiation is not valued or promoted. It is unfortunate that the eating disorder serves to further tie her in an unhealthy way to her parents, who in turn, do not wish to let her grow into personal independence.
It is evident from the research available that the reasons for college women’s difficulties with eating disorders are many and complex. Some of the roots are in society itself–a society that teaches women to acquiesce to pressures and intimidation rather than to fight or change their circumstances and a society that teaches women that they are supposed to look a certain way in order to be acceptable.
There is a great deal of information about the relationship between the family of origin and the resulting eating disordered behavior. Families with addictions, punitive behavior, anger, hostility, blurred identities, and lack of support for growth and individuation create young women who are unable to cope with the stresses of college living without their maladaptive eating. They do not know how to handle the difficulties of relationships, seeking support, and handling the normal changes of life without reverting to the learned childhood behavior of seeking solace in food.
Evidence suggests that these difficulties are due to the lack of healthy food, inadequate support services, and the impersonal nature of college living. The problem is multifaceted and further aggravated by the isolation of female students who may not understand the nature of their difficulty.
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