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Beauty and pain: Body image and eating disorders happen everywhere, including BYU

Published: Friday, Dec. 30 2011 11:52 p.m. MST

Megan Burrell and Michelle Hinman have suffered unhealthy body images and battled eating disorders.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — She was fat. She could see it in the mirror.

And she knew that when she started college in August, it would get worse. The Freshman 15 happened to everyone — and with the CougarEat nearby and the Creamery just next door, how could you possibly be skinny in Provo?

So Jessica Rogers made a goal that summer: lose 15 pounds. That way, when the inevitable struck, she at least wouldn't be any fatter than she already was. At least she'd have a shot at fitting in at Brigham Young University, where every girl is pretty and thin.

Looking back, it might have helped Rogers to know that her goal was based on myth: A new study reveals that while the "Freshman 15" — the supposed average weight gain for new college students — has been widely accepted as fact for years, it is actually little more than an alliterative legend. Freshmen on average actually gain between 2 and 4 pounds over the course of the year, according to the study, released this month in the academic journal Social Science Quarterly.

In Rogers' case, it was her dysmorphic disorder, or the fixation on her own imaginary physical flaws, that made her see what she saw in the mirror, and told her to eat no more than 300 calories a day. All summer, Rogers (whose name has been changed) never strayed far from a scale. She weighed herself all day long.

College-age women across the country are one of the most at-risk groups when it comes to negative body-image issues and eating disorders. This is a decades-long issue. The question is why, after all these years, it continues to vex young women — and perhaps more importantly, what's being done about it.

Researchers are finding that the campus environment and its corresponding pressures can foster thoughts that already bombard women: That being beautiful is the point of being a woman, and anything less than perfection is unacceptable. But psychologists emphasize that not only are these problems treatable, they could even be avoided altogether.

Environment of pressure

"I feel like my eating is out of control. I hate myself." These are the emotions LaNae Valentine hears from the girls who come in to BYU's Women's Services office. A marriage and family therapist, Valentine has worked at Women's Services since 1998 and seen her fair share of the struggles faced by women at the university.

One of the most common problems, not just at BYU but everywhere, is the issue of food. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 women struggle with an eating disorder. Ninety percent of those are women between the ages of 12 and 25. And according to Valentine, college campuses are prime habitats for skewed relationships between girls and their bodies.

"If you get a bunch of freshman in resident housing," Valentine said, some "never had any body-image issues until they came to college and talked to roommates. Everyone is talking about it and worrying about it, and they say, 'Oh, maybe I should worry about it, too.'"

More commonly, said Valentine, going to college triggers a latent problem. Girls who developed disordered eating behavior or a negative perception of their bodies during adolescence will fall back on or intensify old habits when they get to school.

That was Megan Burrell's experience. Now a senior at BYU, Burrell struggled with her weight in elementary school. By the time she was 13, dieting was a fixation, and then an obsession. For the next seven years, she dealt with anorexia, bulimia and bouts of binge eating disorder. "I felt like my life was ruled by numbers," Burrell said. The size of her jeans, what she saw on the scale, her calorie intake for the day — she obsessed about each of these things without relief. It got to the point, she said, where she couldn't distinguish her frenzied thoughts from reality. She thought about food constantly; so she thought she was eating constantly, even when she was barely managing a few stalks of celery and an apple for a whole day.

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