(Editor’s Note: This is the second article in an investigative series on the accessibility and effectiveness of mental health resources available within the tri-campus community.)
In spite of heightened discourse surrounding anxiety and depression on college campuses, many students who are afflicted with eating disorders still suffer in silence. Several Saint Mary’s students are looking to spread awareness about eating disorders and healthy eating in the hopes the College will provide more resources on campus.
Senior Anne Nowalk said she considers herself an eating disorders activist and has called for expanded campus resources for students with eating disorders. Nowalk said her perception of eating disorders, and her perspective on how others view them, changed when her friend developed an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are common among young women ages 18 to 24, Nowalk said, and this can become exacerbated at a place like Saint Mary’s — an all women’s college.
“Something I started to realize was that there are a lack of resources and a lack of understanding about eating disorders on campus,” Nowalk said. “Based on studies done by the National Eating Disorder Association and others, we know that eating disorders are most likely present on campus. The fact that we don’t hear students talking about them shows the extreme stigmatization that is attached to having an eating disorder.”
And this stigma can prove deadly, Nowalk said.
“[Eating disorders have] one of the highest mortality rates for mental disorders, but that’s not really recognized by most people because there’s a stigma that an eating disorder has to do with a person being selfish or just wanting to lose weight,” she said.
Saint Mary’s used to employ a registered dietician on campus, Anna Uhran Wasierski, but she left the College in 2018 and is now employed at Notre Dame. No replacement has been hired so far, yet Uhran Wasierski is still listed on the website as an active campus dietician.
Saint Mary’s hosts “Love Your Body Week” annually, a week of events focused on student body positivity, but Nowalk said she feels like the week doesn’t place sufficient emphasis on eating disorder awareness.
“We have ‘Love Your Body Week’ on campus in February, which is actually National Eating Disorder Awareness month, and it’s nice to have that, but over the years it’s become less and less about the knowledge of eating disorders and more about doing activities that surround a person’s overall health,” she said. “While I personally believe that we need to focus on overall health, we definitely need to be having more events on campus where students can speak up and talk about what it means to have an eating disorder.”
Nowalk said she believes that it is important to maintain resources and sustain discourse about eating disorders on campus.
“We are in an environment that has a competitive mindset and often showing any sort of struggle is seen as a weakness,” she said. “If we only address these topics one week during the school year, we are saying that … an eating disorder is not as important as other topics, when in reality, it intersects with almost every issue that students advocate for and talk about on our campuses.”
Beyond advocacy for eating disorders, Nowalk said she feels the College can do better when it comes to supporting healthy eating. Although the College circulates guides to healthy eating in the cafes and dining hall, Nowalk said she feels these resources promote body shaming, or weight shaming, instead of healthy eating.
“I noticed a pamphlet in the 1884 Cafe which discusses healthy eating … it’s a little triggering, one of the sections says ‘eat a salad every day,’ and that’s not targeting every student,” she said. “It’s vague, and there are ways in which salads can be very unhealthy or not provide you with the nutrients you need. We all need carbs, protein, vegetables and fruits, but students may feel they need to skip those in order to have a salad and that can contribute to disordered eating patterns.”
Despite this, Nowalk said the pamphlet does make some good points about the importance of eating breakfast every morning.
“I think it’s very good to promote the idea of not skipping breakfast because many students still skip meals in order to lose weight or avoid the ‘Freshman 15,’ but it is so vital that students eat breakfast,” she said. “I never used to go to breakfast very often, but now I go every day and I’ve definitely seen an increase in students attending, and that might be because of the menu changes, but also because of the College’s recognition that eating breakfast is an important part of students’ everyday diet.”
However, many students feel that the College needs to fix the food, and not the resources, present in the dining hall. Senior Katelyn Valley said that after seeing a nutritionist on campus two years ago, they decided that she could no longer eat the food on campus.
“I saw a nutritionist and she said it was very likely that the oil [Sodexo] uses is what caused me to get IBS, which is a digestive disorder,” Valley said. “And then this year I had to go on a low FODMAP diet to try to re-balance the flora in my gut to try to correct the issue.”
FODMAPs are certain types of carbohydrates that have been known to cause digestive problems. A low FODMAP diet can help to reduce the amount of digestive trouble associated with these carbs, but this is another example of the obstacles in place for students with particular dietary needs on campus.
All in all, Nowalk said she wants students to realize that every body is different, and that overcoming an eating disorder is both a battle and a journey.
“The size of your body does not determine your worth,” Nowalk said. “Regardless of race, class, weight, height, gender identity, sexual orientation and age, eating disorders are a real issue. As a school, Saint Mary’s can do more to offer resources, and so can Notre Dame and Holy Cross.”
For those who may be coping with an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorder Association’s website offers a free screening tool and helpline.