Enterprise Story – “Distorted Image: Unhealthy Body Perceptions, Eating Disorders and Finding Solutions”

90% of those with eating disorders are women between the ages of 12 and 25 (The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness)

American University Junior Kaitlyn Wozniak has already achieved many of her goals as an undergraduate.

She is a leader in the Alpha Chi Omega sorority, reigning Maryland Miss 2011 and now has her sights set on graduate school to earn a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology.

Despite these accomplishments, however, Wozniak has done something even more incredible in her college career:

She’s beaten anorexia nervosa.

“I was diagnosed with anorexia when I was in my sophomore year of high school and it carried on until my freshman year in college,” she told me as we chatted outside the Davenport Lounge in the School of International Service. “I’ve been fully recovered now for about a year and a half.”

Wozniak’s story is like that of millions of young women between the ages of 12 and 25 who make up 90% of eating disorder cases, according to statistics from The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness.

Anorexia nervosa is the most deadly of these eating disorders and, based on data from the National Eating Disorder Association, has the highest premature mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Anorexic people have an obsessive fear of weight gain and resort to drastic, even deadly measures like self-starvation in order to maintain a weight far below their Body Mass Index (BMI).

Alan Duffy, a health educator at AU’s Wellness Center who has worked with body image and eating disorders for almost eight years, has seen how many people are affected by eating disorders.

“Once you start doing this work you start discovering how many people around you-friends and loved ones-have gone through the struggle in silence.”

Duffy explained how college students are among those affected, in part because of a high-stress environment that emphasizes perfectionism.

“At an elite institution like this, and with people being in D.C., students feel like they have to do so much to get ahead,” he said. “You take that with a need for control and what’s the thing they have control over? What they eat.”

Often “the media” is also blamed for helping manifest negative body images and eating disorders in young adults.

“I think ‘the media’ does have a huge influence, especially on that age group (12-25),” Michelle McKeever, an AU Sophomore and peer leader of “The Body Project,” said.

“(The media) makes young girls and young boys look at themselves in a different, unhealthy way. In college you want to fit in with people and that can be dangerous because people assume ‘fitting in’ means you have to be the ‘idealistic person’, which includes a ‘perfect body.’”

Duffy emphasized how media don’t cause eating disorders but can worsen unhealthy body images.

“There’s no question that people who have body image dissatisfaction or an eating disorder, if they view media images, it makes them worse,” he said.

However, Duffy also mentioned how people can fight “the media” profiting off of advertizing that promotes unrealistic body images: stop buying it.

“As long as people keep buying, they’ll keep producing it…because they want to make money,” said Duffy. “That’s their sole motivation.”

The solutions for reducing negative body image and eating disorders revolve around a similar theme of individual effort that later spreads to others.

“The best place to start is internally,” Wozniak said. “Becoming comfortable in your own skin involves fighting negative thoughts and surrounding yourself with positive people who don’t make food and excessive exercise a key factor in their lives.”

According to Wozniak, the path to recovery for each person with an eating disorder is very individualized as well.

“There’s no set definition of an eating disorder whatsoever. So when you approach prevention and treatment, you have to base it off of a person’s personality.”

Duffy is in charge of helping students with this process as the eating disorders case manager in the Office of the Dean of Students. He helps students understand what resources are available to them and then helps them “find a good fit” based on factors like location or religious affiliation of the facility.

National programs like “The Body Project” come out of the Wellness Center and train female students like McKeever to facilitate healthier discussions about body image and dispel misconceptions about beauty.

“There are a lot of resources for the AU community,” McKeever said. “But I don’t think people utilize them like they need to a lot of the time.”

You can find the American University Wellness Center on Facebook.

[Alan Duffy interview]

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