I felt like my life was ruled by numbers.
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.
"Freshman year (of college) was really bad," she said. "When I came here, it was super hard, because I noticed all these really skinny girls and I kept comparing myself."
Rampant comparison is just one aspect of the college culture and its effect on the way women see themselves. According to Valentine and other therapists, another classic problem is the garden-variety stress of increased academic pressure. Disordered eating can be a way to control a life that feels like it's spinning out of control.
Disease of perfection
Perfectionism is a major precursor to an eating disorder. It is also what drives many college students: get the grades, ace the tests, be president of this club and date that guy.
Dr. Diane Spangler, a psychologist at BYU, has been studying eating disorders for close to 20 years. She said that the people most likely to be afflicted with eating disorders are women, college age, from "relatively competitive socioeconomic backgrounds." She said that more competitive universities often see higher rates of eating disorders.
Many of the women Valentine sees struggling at BYU are perfectionists. They feel like "they have to be really good at everything, that 'My identity is based on what I do,'" she said. This idea, she is careful to point out, is common to many cultures. But it is also "pretty prevalent in our BYU culture."
"'Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father is perfect.' We take that very literally here," said Michelle Hinman, 29, a nursing student at BYU.
The roots of her eating disorder formed when she was 11, in a McDonald's bathroom. She and a friend were trying out a practice they'd seen on TV: sticking your finger down your throat in order to vomit. Hinman proceeded to do just that, and she kept it up for 17 years.
When she arrived at BYU, after rehab and a divorce, Hinman was determined to start fresh. She began studying "12 to 17 hours a day" for the university's competitive nursing program. She struggled to live up to what she saw as the norm. "I felt that there are very high expectations for us — spiritually, academically and physically." She quickly relapsed, controlling her weight and her emotions by throwing up her food.
Hating your body
It is important to recognize, said Spangler, that not every woman who deals with insecurity about her body will develop a full-blown eating disorder. There is a distinct difference between having a negative body image and having an eating disorder. But they are linked ?— negative body image is often what drives the development of disordered eating or habits.
For Rogers, Burrell, and Hinman, their poor body images were intertwined with their behaviors. "A lot of the motivation for the eating disorder came from looking in the mirror and not being satisfied. I never accepted myself as a woman," Hinman said.
Over the course of her career, Spangler has examined negative body-image issues as well as eating disorders. According to her, "body-dissatisfaction rates keep going up" throughout society as a whole. Across the board, she sees increasing "criticism and rejection of the body as it appears."
Perfection in Provo
BYU is an interesting case: it is a competitive university with its own peculiar culture. But it is not an exception to the nationwide trends for rates of eating disorders and negative body-image issues among women; rather, it tends to reflect them. The pressures that trigger the problems at BYU, however, are not entirely the same as they are elsewhere.
Spangler has performed multiple studies on the body image of women within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (who make up a large majority of the women at BYU). Results were mixed. One study found that LDS women actually had a better body image than women not associated with the faith. Another study, however, showed similar rates of body-image dissatisfaction across all women surveyed, regardless of religious affiliation.
What makes these contrasts especially worth studying is the doctrine of the LDS faith, and how it might impact the way bodies are perceived within the church. Spangler explained that in contrast with many faiths, Mormon doctrine is fairly pro-body. LDS members believe that they were created in the image of a God with a literal human body, and that their bodies will be resurrected with them. Bodies, then, are not a carnal challenge to be transcended, but a holy and intrinsic aspect of an eternal plan.
The nuances of Spangler's research revealed interesting findings. According to Spangler, the results of a 2007 study suggest "LDS females residing inside Utah have a less positive body image than LDS females outside of Utah."
The study also discussed a reason behind this trend: "LDS females residing outside Utah may be impacted more by the pro-body LDS doctrine than LDS females residing inside Utah."
Why would Mormons inside Utah be less impacted by doctrine than Mormons beyond it, who are far fewer? Spangler thinks that body-image trends in Utah are culturally influenced, and in this case, that culture can counteract the doctrine.
In Utah, she explained, "there is a strong emphasis on getting married and marriageability." And for many members, marriageability and attractiveness are linked.
The marriage imperative, according to Hinman, Rogers and Burrell, definitely plays out on campus, increasing the competitive vibe. "You feel like you have to fit a certain mold to be able to compete for guys' attention," said Burrell.
Rogers agreed. "We put a lot of stress on our physical appearances, because there's a lot of stress on the social environment. I think that fosters a lot of insecurities and stress. It influenced me in the way that I thought that all the other girls were high achievers who had everything together and were almost perfect. I felt like an oddball out, and that isolation pushed me into a darker, lonelier place. I think a lot of girls here feel that."
Courtney Merrill was not surprised by Spangler's findings about body image in Utah. A therapist who works with youth in Washington, D.C., Merrill completed her master's in marriage and family therapy at BYU about 10 years ago.
"Anyone who has four roommates at BYU for four years is going to come across disordered eating," she said. "I would say half of my roommates (struggled with it). A lot of it goes unreported."
While a student, Merrill worked at Women's Services on campus and saw a gap in the available resources. After some research, she carefully began to plan and structure a new method of coping for women on campus: a support group called Fed Up With Food. Its purpose was to target women who weren't struggling so violently that they needed individual counseling, but for whom a group would be both helpful and comfortable.
Fed Up was based loosely on a 12-step program, but "instead of a sponsor they would have a mentor," Merrill said, "someone who understands what you're going through, where you're coming from." Fed Up was to be a haven where secrets could be safely shared.
Fed Up With Food is still going strong. The group meets once a week together; then every mentor-mentee couple meets individually. Rogers, Burrell and Hinman have all been mentored; Rogers and Burrell are now mentors themselves. All three have responded well to the network of support Merrill began.
When Rogers joined the group, "(the members) were the first real people on my level that knew about my eating disorder. They were the first peer group who didn't make me feel like a crazy patient."
Hinman was skeptical the first time she went to Fed Up. She was sure that after 17 years, she was beyond help. But after her first meeting, Hinman didn't throw up. She didn't throw up the whole week.
At the second meeting, "I raised my hand and said, 'I haven't thrown up in a week!' And it was so exciting. Every week I would add seven more days."
Eating disorders are not easily overcome. One reason, according to Valentine, is that simply giving up on food is not an option. "If you have an addiction to drugs or alcohol," she said, "you can go cold turkey and just decide to stay away from it. You can't really do that with food. You always have to deal with food."
But Rogers, Burrell and Hinman are all on their way to achieving peace with themselves and their bodies, thanks in part to the on-campus community at Fed Up. The example of Fed Up with Food shows that having a support system in place on campus can genuinely help women at risk. But Valentine, Spangler and the Fed Up mentors themselves are convinced that avoiding the problem in the first place is not only best, but possible.
For many, prevention comes back to body image. Merrill said she wants women to know the deceptiveness of media. "If we can understand that the message (of advertising) is a lie. Let's be critical of what it is: a way to make money. That is the main goal of advertising. You have to be aware of that."
But Merrill also pointed out that helping with the prevention of negative body image begins with peer-on-peer compassion. "(Women) really have to be kinder to each other. Women can be each other's worst enemies, especially when it comes to social pressure. Be kind to each other and be kind of yourself."
The responsibility does not just lie with women. "I think the things that guys say can really affect girls," said Burrell. "Boys would call me fat through elementary school. That so damaged my self-esteem. One thing that boys say could affect a girl forever."
Spangler is gearing up for another study on eating disorders, this time about possibilities for prevention. "I think that there are very specific kinds of things that people could learn about their body and about eating that would put them significantly less at risk for eating disorders," she said. Changing "the way we think and the way we eat" could really affect the rising rates of disordered eating today.
In the meantime, spreading the word about the Freshman 15 — that it's a myth and not a fact — is a start.
"I do think it's an important finding," Spangler said. "There's a lot of fear of fatness out there. It's a myth that affects people." Burrell agreed. "I think that would really help girls to know," she said, "because a lot of girls freak out about it."
As Burrell was heading home for Thanksgiving shortly, something was different about her. Thanksgiving used to be a very stressful day for her. "This is the first year I don't care," she said.
"I'm so excited!"