American Culture 101: Eating Disorders on College Campuses

The second part of our American Culture 101 series takes a look at eating disorders on U.S. college campuses. Our intern, Rachel Senkler speaks with one student about her own battle with anorexia.

Inspired by her own experience about body image while studying abroad in China, ISV Writer/Blogger Rachel Senkler looks into the issue of eating disorders on U.S. *college campuses.

Below is her interview with Erin Harrop(above, right), a graduate student at University of Washington. Erin dealt with anorexia for the past twenty years and has published articles in several academic journals regarding eating disorders and substance abuse. She is working towards a counseling degree in social work.

*In some countries “college” means a secondary school. In the United States, “college” and “university” are the same in most cases.

Rachel: What inspired you to work in this field?

Erin: What inspired me was my own experience dealing with anorexia for the past twenty years. Body image is one of those consistent things that no one quite knows what to do with it. Eating disorders are fatal, and I want to help get better treatments out there.

Rachel: Did interactions with other people affect how you viewed yourself?

Erin: We all grow up with people commenting about our bodies—from getting taller while growing up, to getting attention from men when you start developing. It wasn’t so much what people said about my body, rather it was hearing what others said about their bodies that affected me. For example, I would hear my Mom say how much she disliked her body. I thought my Mom was a beautiful woman, so I started to be afraid of what would happen to me when I grew up. You frequently hear women talking about other women’s bodies like how they think that person should lose weight. I became excessively afraid of becoming “that woman” and feared what other people would think of me if I ever did gain weight.

Rachel: What helped you recover?

Erin: I have been blessed in my life to have a lot of people who really cared about me, and who would tell me that they loved me and why they loved me, and tell me what was special about Erin that was worth keeping in the world. When you get caught up in your weight instead of who you are, you become a number. My Dad would tell me everday “Erin,  you are a strong, beautiful, capable young woman,” and that became a mantra I used in my recovery. I found that I was a courageous person, and it took getting very close to death for me to see that. At my most desperate, I made a list of everything I love about life, that I have returned to over and over again. These became the things that I lived for, that defined me, instead of my body mass index. I started working with a team of people who truly understood anorexia, and who helped me tackle it from all sides.

Rachel: In general, how are Americans sensitive to these issues? Do you have any suggestions for our readers on how to be sensitive about these issues?

Erin: I am a firm believer in avoiding negative food talk, such as making any reference to food being bad or bad for you. Negative food talk is something to avoid because food is food—it makes us strong and helps us grow. It is good to avoid talking about calories or fat grams, or numbers related to weight. I like to try to look at food from an anthropological perspective—describing how it looks and what it tastes like, but I do not include a moral judgment. You can say “Oh wow, I’m really not digging this American food—it tastes oily!” [instead of “wow, this food is all fat and is going straight to my hips!” or “this stuff is sinfully bad for me”] When you make a comment about someone’s body—you don’t know how someone is going to take it. Avoiding comments about weight loss or gain is always a good idea. If you want to compliment someone on their appearance, focus on their outfit, their hair, or their eyes—something other than their body shape or how much they weigh.

Rachel: How widespread is the problem within American culture?

Erin: Here are some disturbing numbers:

42% of first and third graders want to be thinner.

80% of children who are 10 years old are afraid of being fat.

91% of college women are dieting.

40% of 9 and 10 year-old girls have dieted.

One out of eight eating disorder patients are men.

By the time girls are seventeen, 78% of them are unhappy with their bodies.

This means the vast majority of every young girl that you see are dealing with body image issues. While there is a lower prevalence of specific disorders like anorexia nervosa [a disorder involving withholding nourishment from the body) and bulimia [a disorder in which someone will induce vomiting or take laxatives to lose weight]. About 3% of the population suffer from these disorder. But 15% of young women have substantially disordered eating behaviors, which is pretty big!

What are some warning signs someone has an eating disorder?
1. Dieting, especially if the person is a normal weight.
2. Frequently checks weight.
3. Excessively exercising, exercising at strange hours, or feels guilty when one can’t exercise.
4. Weight loss.
5. Going to the bathroom a lot during a meal.
6. Dull skin.
7. Hair loss

Rachel: From your experiences and your research, what is your version of a healthy relationship between ourselves and our bodies?

Erin: A healthy relationship with your body is when your body can be what it is supposed to be at whatever weight that is. We need to be non-judgmental towards ourselves. I try to be grateful for my body—every part of me. A healthy relationship with our bodies should be marked by nourishment, balance, gratitude, and to just letting our bodies be.

Other Resources

“America the Beautiful”

 If you want to learn more about body image in America, Erin recommends watching “America the Beautiful” and “America the Beautiful 2: the Thin Commandments.” These documentaries can be found streaming on Netflix if you have an account. You can also visit the following website to find more information from the US government: [ilink url=”” style=”tick”]National Institute of Mental Health[/ilink]


Want to hear what else Erin has to say? Here are the citations for some of her published works:

Harrop, E. N., Urquhart, G. B., Enkema, M. C., & Clifasefi, S. L. (in press). Twin studies and the heritability of substance use disorder. Encyclopedia of Addictive Behaviors. Elsevier.

Norman, S., Chabot, A., Harrop, E., Lansing, A., Myers, U., Rodgers, C., et al. (in press). Development of sexual relationships. In Brown, S. & Zucker, R. A. (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Adolescent Substance Abuse. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

Douglas, H. A. C., Shilling, B., Harrop, E. N., Bowen, S., Chawla, N., Marlatt, G. A., & Lustyk, M. K. (October, 2011). Cardiovascular responses to a laboratory stressor in substance abusers after treatment with Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention. Poster presented at annual convention of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, Toronto.

Harrop, E. N. & Marlatt, G. A. (2010). The comorbidity of substance use disorders and eating disorders in women: Prevalence, etiology, and treatment. Addictive Behaviors, 35(5), 392-8.

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