All around her she could smell the mouth-watering food – the steak, the french fries, the pasta. She could almost taste it – almost. It was surrounding her, enveloping her. Her friends talked. She smiled at the right cues and nodded at all the right times. She perfected her ability to make people believe she was listening to their every word, but she didn't hear a single one– she was stuck inside of her own head.
Does it look like I'm eating normally? Will this salad make me gain weight? How will this affect my "progress?"
Thoughts raced through her head, faster and faster until they became relentless and deadening. Finally she couldn't take it anymore; she needed to purge.
In the U.S., there are approximately 24 million people battling an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). For the past six years, the Student Wellness Team has hosted National Eating Disorder Awareness Week with hopes of spreading the message that a person's worth is not measured by body size or weight, but by who they are inside and what they fill their life with.
In a survey of 185female students on a college campus, 58 percent felt pressured to be a certain weight, according to www.anad.org.
College students are more at risk for developing eating disorders, according to Carissa Uschold, a counselor and adjunct instructor at UB. Being on their own for the first time, thrown into new environments, dealing with new pressures and demands they are not accustomed to – all are forces that could cause someone to develop an eating disorder.
Uschold has been the coordinator for UB's Eating Disorder Treatment Team for three out of the four years she's been a member. She specialized in eating disorder treatment for the past 10 years, but her interest in helping others started long before that.
With both professional and personal exposure to the issues of body image and eating disorders, Uschold – along with the Student Wellness Team – strives to provide education, decrease the negative stigma, and offer hope to students.
"Eating disorders have unfortunately continued to increase due to the media and the fact that society often sends the message that we as individuals should pride ourselves on what we look like rather than who we are," Uschold said. "My hope is to continue to change that message and guide others toward body acceptance and positive sense of self."
Twenty-five percent of college-aged women engage in binging and purging as a weight-management technique, according to anad.org.
For Chandra Pasch, a senior psychology major, it all started with a diet. She began to watch what she ate, count calories, and think about what food she would stay away from, but it all escalated when the purging cycles began. It wasn't a big deal, she would tell herself after forcing herself throw up – it wouldn't progress into anything.
She thought she didn't have a problem. She was wrong.
Calorie counting became a calming experience when Pasch was anxious, and even purging cycles produced a physiological response that felt great for a short time – although it did leave her feeling horrible after realizing what she did. Still, Pasch had no idea she suffered from an eating disorder.
It was only after taking a survey on the Wellness Center's website that she realized what she was doing to herself was a big deal.
"I took it and I remember just staring at the screen after I had finished that said: ‘you have many symptoms of an eating disorder,' and being like ‘f***, where do I go from here?'" Pasch said. "So that's when it kind of clicked, like okay, I need to get help."
Body image is everywhere – in the movies, in magazines, even walking around campus.
Simply talking to her friends was a huge help for Pasch and they didn't even know it.
"When I first started losing weight people would come up to me and be like: ‘Oh my god, can you like, go eat something?' And they thought that was a compliment," Pasch said. "Girls say [stuff like] that to each other all the time, like, ‘Oh, you skinny bitch.' [Things] that we think of as being cute and complimentary but it's f***ed up if you think about it."
Her friends did not know she was secretly suffering from all of their comments – in fact, her friends did not know she was suffering at all. Her body image consumed her. It controlled her entire life.
The lowest 5 percent of women fall into America's percentile of "ideal beauty," according to Pasch, leaving 95 percent to feel insufficient about their bodies. From watching the Victoria's Secret fashion show to watching movies or television, Pasch sees the potential for the development of body issues everywhere.
"We have a multi-billion-dollar diet and beauty industry because the bottom line is that there's money to be made when people are made to feel insufficient about themselves," Pasch said.
Control is another major factor in the development of an eating disorder. When someone feels control slipping through their grasp in other aspects of their lives, controlling their weight is one thing they're able to hold on to, according to Pasch.
Every second of every day, the eating disorder was on Pasch's mind. It was debilitating and it was frustrating. Pasch deliberated any crumb that entered her body. How would it affect her body? How will she look in the mirror? How will others see her?
No matter where Pasch was, she was alone. Whether she was out to eat with friends, with her family, or sitting among the mass of students in the Student Union, she felt isolated from those around her. She felt guilty, she felt ashamed, and most of all she felt judged.
She was her biggest critic and her biggest enemy.
It was only after reaching out for help and contacting the Wellness Center that Pasch began her road to recovery.
"I started working with a counselor at Wellness Services and with our nutritionist on campus and with a medical team to make sure I hadn't done irreparable damage to my body," Pasch said. "Little by little, [I] slowly started to break the habits that had really taken hold of my life for so long."
It was through her sessions with an on-campus therapist that Pasch overcame her belief that it was all her fault. At first, she couldn't grasp the concept that there was a way it couldn't be her fault.
"[My therapist asked]: would you look at something with lupus or cancer or something and say it was their fault for having that?'" Pasch said. "Once I had that in my mind I sort of started to think: ‘OK, maybe this isn't something that I inflicted upon myself. It's something I can work to overcome.'"
Just knowing someone was there who was not judging her in the slightest was a great help for Pasch. After judging herself so harshly and intensely for months, she finally opened up to the idea of seeing herself from a different, healthy perspective.
Finally she could hear what people were saying – she was out of her head.
"[Many] eating disorders are often misperceived as a disease of vanity and something that the individual can control," Uschold said.
She added that new neuroscience research has suggested otherwise. The research found that there are both genetic and biological influences on a person that impact whether they will or will not develop an eating disorder.
The consequences of a prolonged eating disorder are much more than children of vanity. If someone is depriving his or her body of the calories they need, bone density can decrease and their heart can actually irreversibly shrink in size. With purging they can permanently ruin their throat or their vocal cords. Also, throwing up disrupts the body's homeostasis, therefore causing a chemical imbalance, which could lead to heart attacks or strokes, according to Pasch.
Along with working with her therapist, Pasch joined the on-campus support group where she was able to meet women facing the same problems.
There are people suffering from eating disorders that would never be suspected, Pasch said. They could be a straight A student with a boyfriend who's active on campus and appears to have a great life on the surface, but on the inside they're plagued by an eating disorder. No one would be the wiser.
Without the help from UB's campus services, Pasch would not have recovered. She's learned that control does not have to come from unhealthy behaviors, that she is a person of worth regardless of weight – just as everyone else is.
"Food is just food. It's shouldn't be this all-consuming fact in your life," Pasch said. "[I realized] I don't have to live like this. This isn't any way to live."
Now in remission, Pasch does not eat with incessant thoughts in the back of her head. Now eating isn't nearly as scary to her as it used to be.
With the help of the Wellness Center, Pasch has a whole new outlook on the future. She no longer feels stuck obsessing over what she ate and what she will eat. Because of the tools and support she received at UB, Pasch can proudly say that she's on the right track.
While the Wellness Center sees approximately 50 students with disorders per year, according to Uschold, there are most likely many more students suffering. As Pasch said, the nature of an eating disorder is that you don't share it with other people. Both women urge those who are – or think they might be – battling an eating disorder to reach out to someone. Confide in a friend or contact someone on-campus.
"[Know] that no one is going to judge you for having this problem," Pasch said. "The best thing you can do for yourself is to tell another person and to not just let it be your secret and I know that that's the absolute hardest step."
All week the Wellness Center has hosted events – from the screening of a documentary to an open discussion taking place Friday – to spread their message.
Acknowledging the problem might be the toughest step, but UB offers a variety of resources that allow students to open up without revealing their identities, without forcing them to open up to others if they don't feel ready, and without charging them a cent. There are people on campus that won't judge, and will offer support, care, and hope, according to Pasch.