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