Over the summer of 2013, Jenna Brown* would sit in her small purple bedroom in Connecticut, open her laptop, and spend two hours a day looking at and saving recipes on Pinterest, not completely realizing how obsessive her habits had become.
In January of 2014, Brown, a now senior at Marist College, began to develop an eating disorder that would affect the future of her seemingly normal college life.
Beginning with dieting, Brown’s relationship with food soon filtered into other aspects of her life. Dieting started to cultivate what Brown described as an “exercise addiction” where she would feel bad about herself if she didn’t make it to the gym. Over that month, the extremity of Brown’s condition began to escalate.
Brown is not alone. According to the Walden Center for Education and Research, “91 percent of college students have attempted to control their weight through dieting and 40 percent of college females have eating disorders.”
Brown has what she describes as a “comprehensive” eating disorder meaning that she has “both aspects of the disorder.” She will restrict her food intake throughout the day, a behavior associated with anorexia, but will binge and sometimes purge food at night, an action that is linked to bulimia.
Speaking on what triggered the start of her eating disorder, Brown said, “I think it was a lot to do with identity because at that point I felt like all my friends had their specific thing. They knew what they wanted to do in their life and club wise and I felt like I didn’t have anything and I guess dieting became my thing and controlling food became how I would be controlling my future.”
It wasn’t until February of 2014 that Brown realized her behaviors were doing more harm than good. Physically, she noticed how cold her body was when everyone else in the room was comfortable with the temperature and how her she wasn’t able to sleep as well as before. Mentally, her mind could not focus on anything other than food.
“Everyone thinks that people with eating disorders hate food, but it’s not like that at all. You’re obsessed with food,” said Brown. Foods like egg whites, berries, and light yogurt are what Brown calls “safe foods,” or foods she feels comfortable eating. Other foods such as nuts, oil, and butter, Brown doesn’t know if she will ever be ok eating. In addition, before cooking meals, she will look up the foods online to check the calorie count.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, dietician Lori Lieberman emphasized how developing a healthy relationship with food is crucial for those with eating disorders. Lieberman said, “We need to move away from counting and overanalyzing our intake, and get back to trusting it’s OK to eat what we enjoy, eaten mindfully.”
For Brown, the hardest part of having an eating disorder is dealing with it while living in a “college environment.” Aside from the lack of available resources and treatment centers, the generalized mentality of college students towards food triggers her behavior more than it would for someone without an eating disorder. “The college atmosphere is very focused on food. Everyone goes to the gym all the time and I think the diet culture is more pronounced in college. But also that, ‘I’m going to let myself have some Ben and Jerry’s,’ that’s a very college-y thing.”
These types of comments about cheat days, or treating yourself to junk food that others may view as harmless, manifest within Brown and cause her to think about food even more.
Sara Silverstein, Brown’s friend, has dieted and suffered with disordered eating. Silverstein said, “In a college environment, you’re surrounded by so many people that you’re constantly comparing yourself to. When you’re home, the only people you have to see are your family members. At school, you’re seeing everyone all the time.”
Right now, as a senior, Brown is working towards her goal of graduating and has found that school is often a good way to take her focus off of food and exercise. According to Healthy Place, a website focusing on mental illness, setting SMART, or Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely, goals is key when working towards recovery. As a self described “perfectionist,” Brown said, “ I won’t let my school work fail. Even if I’m having a really bad day, I’ll still stay up and do my work.”
Hannah Sayers, a junior at Marist College who recovered from her eating disorder said, “Setting goals is very important in recovery, but they can’t be too big or you just set yourself up for failure.” Sayers found that after meals, she would set a goal to not purge for a half hour and once that time had passed, she would try for another 30 minutes, and so forth until she did not feel bad about her meal anymore.
Eating disorders not only affect the person suffering with the metal illness, but the friends and family who surround the person as well. Sayers said, “It’s a very difficult thing for friends and family to deal with. [I think the] best they can do is listen and encourage health. Also, I think that family and friends can encourage therapy in a way that doesn’t trigger the person they’re worried about.” For Brown, while she doesn’t think that there has been one particular high point when working towards recovery she said, “I think maybe the moment when I decided to go seek out help was when I was the most proud.”
While Brown’s eating disorder is something she deals with on a daily basis, it does not define her. “I would want people to know that I’m more than just my eating disorder,” she said. After saying this, her eyes begin welling with tears. She begins to look down, trying to hide her expression and says, “I’ve had it for so long that I don’t really remember who I am without it so I don’t know if I would want [people] to know about me because I don’t really know who I am.”
*: Indicates name has been changed for confidentiality reasons.
All photography by Emily Houston