‘Be Comfortable in Your Genes’

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that American culture is obsessed with weight. Look no further than TV shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “Celebrity Fit Club” and magazine covers with waifs like Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie.

Yet what many people don’t realize is that to some, this preoccupation with weight does not end when the TV show does.

Feb. 27 to March 5 marks National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which brings attention to a disease that statistically affects one in four college women and one in 10 men.

“If you think about all the students on campus, one in four and one in 10 are huge numbers,” Heather McKeon, president of Bod Squad, a campus group that seeks to improve body image in college students, said.

Eating disorders break down into three groups: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating. Anorexia is categorized by self-starvation and food restriction, as well as overexercising in some cases.

Bulimia involves purging the body of food and nutrients, often after overeating, through means of self-induced vomiting or the use of laxatives.

Binge eating is a severe form of overeating that is often tied to extreme emotions and/or depression.

Although some trace eating disorders back to the ancient practice of religious fasting, mass communication has focused now more than ever on body image, specifically the message that thin is most desirable.

Despite the fact that history’s most celebrated sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe, was a size 12, today’s media purports images of size zeros and chiseled abs, ignoring that 58 million Americans are considered overweight.

“Media is one factor in eating disorders,” Hue-Sun Ahn, a psychologist at the College who specializes in eating disorders and body consciousness, said. “We are inundated with images and we are buying into these messages. Even the proportions of dolls and action figures have changed from 20 or 30 years ago.”

Ahn said there are other issues and problems that can lead to an eating disorder besides the influence of the media.

Many people who suffer from these disorders have poor body image as well as a lack of control in their lives, leading them to feel their body is the only thing that they can handle. Other factors include a driving sense of perfectionism, low self-esteem, a chaotic home life and a need for attention.

In the past, the primary sufferers have been upper-middle class, white, female teenagers, although Ahn says this profile is changing and crossing race, gender and socioeconomic lines.

In the past, “some African and Latino cultures have cultural protection and celebrate larger body types,” she said. “But some are now buying into the white ideal.”

Eating disorders “are a disease just like any other,” McKeon, junior secondary education/English major, said.

According to McKeon, many students do not fully understand eating disorders, and she has even been asked mocking questions like, “Well, why would people not eat food?”

“It’s not just about someone’s vain body image,” Ahn said.

Eating disorders can cause very serious physiological and psychological problems, including heart trouble, bone loss, constant chills, kidney and heart failure, dental erosion, esophagus tearing, loss of menstruation, depression, social withdrawal, memory loss, insomnia and academic failure.

The College offers many avenues for those seeking help. There is the psychological counseling center, as well as Ahn’s eating disorder support group, “Food, Mood and You.”

Ahn and many other psychologists recommend an interdisciplinary approach to treating a student with an eating disorder, which may include either individual or group therapy, working with a nutritionist and/or physical trainer and food counseling.

Unfortunately, even for those who recognize that they have an eating disorder, which many sufferers will deny, there is a very high relapse rate, especially the longer the patient has suffered from the disease. Still, eating disorders can certainly be overcome.

In accordance with National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Ahn plans to facilitate a “Shades of Beauty” discussion on March 2 at 7 p.m. in the Women’s Center.

There will be a student art exhibit highlighting body image, sponsored by Bod Squad and the Art Student Association, on March 3 in Holman Hall from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Also scheduled are a fund-raising clothing drive and a program called “Perfect Body” in the Travers/Wolfe Main Lounge on March 1 at 8 p.m.