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ISSUE 119 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/10/2006

Eating disorder rumors exaggerated

By Tim Rehborg
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 10, 2006

You have probably heard it before – from your roommate, that girl down the hall, an acquaintance in the Caf: “Eating disorders are so much higher at St. Olaf than at other schools.” In the spirit of Body Image Week, the Messenger decided to investigate these claims.

Eating disorders, generally anorexia and bulimia, are usually most prevalent in the late teenage group. Students with eating disorders are usually very secretive, hiding their eating habits. This aspect of the disease makes it hard to monitor actual numbers of individuals dealing with an eating disorder.

Is this truly the case at our school? One might describe the “typical” St. Olaf student as busy, involved, high-achieving, maybe even perfectionistic. While these qualities are generally positive, they are also personality traits commonly seen among young adults with eating disorders.

Eating disorders often directly relate to issues with body image. The common stereotype of a St. Olaf student is a “thin, blonde Norwegian,” one student in Fireside said. This ideal, often jokingly referred to in conversation, is not one to which all can easily aspire.

Many St. Olaf students struggle with eating disorders. However, Steve O'Neill, director of the St. Olaf Counseling Center, disputed the opinion that eating disorders at St. Olaf are disproportionately high.

“Generally speaking, schools like St. Olaf that are more academically challenging attract students that are more perfectionist and high – achieving,” O’Neill said. Students like this are generally more prone to develop eating disorders.”

The Counseling Center handles a range of mental health issues among the student body. Seeing about 450 students a year, O’Neill said that issues range from depression and anxiety to relationship issues and eating disorders. According to O'Neill, eating disorders are about the fourth most common issue the Center sees.

On average, 17 to 22 percent of students per year report eating disorders or body image issues as either a primary or secondary reason for visiting the center.

This number, about 100 students a year, is close to the statistics from other schools. O'Neill is in open dialogue with psychologists with other private liberal arts colleges, like Carleton and Macalester. While numbers vary from one school to another, small private colleges share similar numbers, statistics that usually show a higher rate of eating disorders than larger public schools.

However, these statistics only account for students that actively seek out help and treatment. “Due to the secretive, private nature of eating disorders, many students are ashamed and afraid to recognize their problem,” O'Neill said. “These students are the hardest, and we only hear about them through the concern of roommates, friends and family members.”

Cafeteria eating situations are one of the many difficulties for students with eating disorders. “Eating becomes such a personal, private thing for students dealing with these issues,” O'Neill said. “Students are afraid friends will notice how much they aren't eating so they often eat alone, or find reasons to skip meals. Bag lunches also provide an alternative.”

Most of the students who visit the counseling center with eating disorders are women, with men accounting for only two to four percent of those students.

“Women are definitely more prone to eating disorders, not only on this campus but nationwide,” O'Neill said.

Even if the number of students struggling with body image on our campus is not disproportionately high, eating disorders are a major combatant with which to be reckoned.

The Health and Wellness Center is active in creating awareness about eating disorders, and the Counseling Center is available for counseling and support. With these resources, St. Olaf students can create a healthier environment for one another, supporting the view of a healthy body image and a healthier body of students.

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