Lucye Rafferty/The Hoya Students who suffer from eating disturbances often avoid many of the different food selections at the dining halls, despite staff available to help students make educated nutritional choices.
It was winter, so the wind must have whipped bitterly against her tiny frame. After a semester on a full athletic scholarship to Georgetown, Mary Wazeter found herself teetering on the edge of the Susquehanna Bridge in Pennsylvania.
Only a year earlier, she had won the high school state championships in cross country and in track.
It was 1981, and one of the lowest points in Mary’s lifelong struggle with anorexia and bulimia. Although it happened over 20 years ago, the calorie-limiting and self-destructive behaviors that led her to the edge of the bridge are still visible as ever in Georgetown students.
Two percent of Georgetown students suffer from anorexia and 7 percent from bulimia, according to Mary Quigley, clinical social worker and staff therapist at Georgetown Counseling and Psychiatric Services. Although last year Quigley herself saw an unusually high 80 students with eating disorders (CAPS is staffed by six full-time counselors and three part-time), the numbers at Georgetown are comparable to national surveys. Research shows that as many as 10 percent of college-aged women in the United States suffer from an eating disorder. In general, about 5 percent of American women and 1 percent of American men have an eating disorder.
Even within the first few weeks of every school year, weight and appearance issues seem to consume the Georgetown campus. The residence halls flutter with fears of the “freshman 15,” guys start comparing how much they can bench press and peer education begins to stress healthy eating.
For university students, those first few months are often the most challenging – moving out on their own, shedding parental discretion and, often times, fearing a relapse into old habits.
“It’s an overwhelming amount of freedom,” says Rebecca*, a recovering anorexic and freshman in the School of Foreign Service, “I was afraid about coming here.”
As a sophomore in high school, Rebecca began scrutinizing nutritional information on food packages and exercising on her own after team practices.
“I took it too far,” she admits, and within a year, she had dropped to 80 pounds on her 5-8 swimmer’s body. Hopefully, she says, her new friends at Georgetown will prevent her from relapsing.
“It’s good there are people everywhere here, and my friends are right next door – right there,” she says, pointing to the room across the hall. “But there is no parental supervision . and nobody knows.”
Many of the students at Georgetown who suffer from eating disorders went through similar problems in high school.
According to Quigley, many bulimics start binging and purging in their junior year of high school, when the pressures of applying to college make them vulnerable to eating problems. Some of them recover while still in high school, but others carry their eating disorders with them to college.
For many of those who suffered in high school, college presents an atmosphere that threatens a relapse into unhealthy habits.
When Mary was 12 years old, her brother David would tell her, “You better be careful what you eat, Mar.” Her coaches, too, pushed her toward the edge. ”If you don’t keep your weight down now, it’ll only get worse when you graduate high school and start college,” they would say.
Sports, especially those that preach that being thin means being fast, have long been associated with eating disorders.
The counseling office at Georgetown, CAPS, meets several times a year with track and field athletes to dispel the mixed messages often projected to runners. The counselors try to emphasize that increased practice, not weight loss, is the most effective way to trim times.
Extreme weight loss can cause osteopenia – a bone disease caused by not getting enough calcium – and numerous other injuries.
At Georgetown and other colleges, eating disorders are less frequent than what experts call “eating disturbances.”
According to the American Psychiatric Association, to be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, a female must go through at least three consecutive menstrual cycles without her period. Both sexes qualify as anorexic if they refuse to maintain a minimum body weight and have an intense fear of gaining weight while clearly underweight.
For bulimia nervosa, a person has to binge-eat twice a week for three months and regularly engage in self-induced purges such as vomiting, non-religious fasting, using laxatives and diuretics or vigorous exercise.
More students suffer from distorted body images and disordered eating habits – including excessive exercise, unhealthy diets and occasional purges. Quigley estimates that as many as 15 percent of the student body struggles with disordered eating, especially binge eating.
Jenny,* a freshman in the School of Nursing and Health Studies, has suffered from eating disorders since she was 15.
“There is so much of an emphasis on `normal eating’ and `societal influences’ that it is almost overwhelming,” she says. “They need to do more about body image.”
The mandatory floor meetings about what constitutes “normal” eating are not the right way to approach body images, she explains. “Once you associate guilt with food, you’re screwed.”
At Georgetown, the pressures of school are compounded by the complications of the eating disorders themselves. The diagnosed often face the stigma that an eating disorder is all about being thin or looking pretty.
Sometimes, it is.
More often, counselors say, it is about perfection and control. Disorders usually begin with eating healthier or dieting, but it can escalate to a point where it is unhealthy and self-destructive.
“Kids are coming here with so much pressure even before they got here. We have driven people at Georgetown,” Quigley said. “With anorexia, they have a feeling that they’re in control of their lives. With bulimia, there’s no control. It’s a way to cope, to deal with things, to deal with loneliness, or even out of boredom.”
It often becomes obsessive, she adds, serving as a form of stress management or a way to structure the day.
For many students, their eating problems are perpetuated by the food choices at the dining hall.
“I’m eating turkey sandwiches or salads every day,” Rebecca says, an attitude that others agreed with.
Even students not suffering from eating disorders complain about the need for healthy food choices. “There’s a lack of food that I can eat at all,” Jenny adds.
For Andrew*, a freshman in the College, eating at the cafeteria is his single biggest challenge every day.
While in high school, Andrew’s weight rose as high as 220 pounds. Through fasting and extreme exercise, he dropped to 140 pounds in less than a year.
Now, on the weekends at Georgetown, he takes several trips to the buffet, returning to his table with plates piled high with cookies, pizza and croissants.
Sometimes, he feels so guilty that he does not even sit down, but just walks around with dessert in hand, eating and returning to the buffet. On the weekdays, he eats so little that instead of a burdened tray, he barely needs a saucer-sized plate. That will be his meal for the day, because anything above the bare minimum will lead to a binge.
“When they’re out of tuna and eggs, or simply unwilling to refill them, it’s a wonderful day of fasting,” he says.
According to Jeannie Quirk, Georgetown’s Director of Food and Beverage, the Dining Services staff is “more than happy” to work on an individual basis with students looking for special diets.
O’Donovan Dining hall offers a vegetarian format that is focused on healthy eating, she said. “I’m not just talking about spaghetti,” she added, mentioning stuffed vegetables and fresh spinach as alternatives.
Students are strongly encouraged to sit down with the dining administrators, she said. “We can’t help someone if we don’t know that you’re out there.”
While women are predominantly the ones afflicted by eating disorders, Andrew is not alone, as over 1 million men in the United States suffer from clinically-diagnosed disordered eating. Men, especially those in sports, often fight to meet a certain weight or to look muscular. A study by Cornell University in the mid-’90s revealed that 40 percent of male football players engage in some sort of disturbed eating behavior. Nationally, men also account for over 40 percent of binge eaters. But for males, it is more often a question of body image than an eating disorder issue, Quigley says.
Both men and women alike at Georgetown suffering from eating disorders are not helpless; CAPS, the Health Center and even student groups are working on prevention and treatment.
In a tidy Village A apartment, 13 girls crowd on couches and the floor, waiting for their meeting to start. An array of food is set on the table: tiny squares of pita bread, spinach leaves, raisins, thin slices of American cheese. The girls chat about econ homework and which spinning instructor at Yates is the best, deciding on Desiree.
At this Wednesday night meeting in late October, the members of SEED – Students Ending Eating Disorders – are planning programs for the freshman residence halls and talking about Vitamin A. The Health Center-sponsored group, led by a six-member board, hopes to provide support and programming for students and peers.
SEED and organizations like it serve as a resource to stop eating disorders before it becomes too late – without treatment, up to 20 percent of people with serious eating disorders die, according to the National Institute of Health. With treatment, the number falls to 2 or 3 percent. Even before the disorders reach critical conditions, the side effects are evident: victims do not mature sexually, are at risk for cardiovascular failures and can see their hair and nails fall off. Anorexia patients are more susceptible to anxiety, chemical dependency, bipolar disorder and major depression. Bulimic patients have increased rates of substance abuse and obesity. “There’s so much shame in it,” Quigley says. Many students are in denial and do not seek treatment. Most of the students here, the counselors say, will get better, because they are really trying.
“I wish I could tell you that I . turned my life around, and am now living successfully on my own,” Mary told Sports Illustrated in 1989. “But I can’t say that.”
Moments after she stood on that bridge in Pennsylvania, her 89-pound frame crashed into the river below. When she hit the river, she described her body collapsing around her bones “like an empty burlap sack.”
Mary Wazeter Mannhardt was fortunate that her episode on the bridge did not kill her, but she did not emerge from the incident unharmed. The ice floe that broke her fall landed her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Now, Mary has dedicated her life to helping others with anorexia and bulimia, serving as a therapist for people with eating disorders. She also published a biography, which is now out of print. But her story, and the story of countless other college students, is always adding pages.
Twenty-two years after Mary Wazeter was a freshman, Rebecca leans back in her dormitory chair, reflecting on her experience with an eating disorder. “It’s part of who I am,” she says. “At this point now, it’s only about what I can do with it.”
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the students.