Embody hosts panel on disordered eating in college students

| Junior News Editor

As part of a line-up of events for National Eating Disorder Awareness (NEDA) week, Washington University club Embody hosted a dietician and an eating disorder therapist to discuss eating habits in college, continuing with their mission to spread knowledge about eating disorders and promote body inclusivity, Apr. 20.

Throughout the event, panelists explained that college students are uniquely susceptible to disordered eating because of diet culture, social media, and lack of food accessibility. To combat these issues, they urged students not to compare themselves to other people and to reframe their mental narrative surrounding eating habits.

Embody regularly hosts meetings where students can discuss eating disorders, promote body inclusivity, and challenge fatphobia. 

The group hosted therapist Lily Pernoud, a licensed professional counselor with over ten years experience in working with individuals who have eating disorders and a board member for the St. Louis International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals, and Heidi Williams, a registered dietician and certified personal trainer who helps people with their food and exercise habits without promoting diet culture.

The panelists discussed food accessibility on campus, which aligns with Embody’s goals to create a safer environment for students who struggle with disordered eating.

“How do food availability and pricing in college impact those with eating disorders or contribute to the development of an eating disorder?” Anaïs Beauvais, a sophomore and co-President of Embody, asked.

Pernoud talked about the impact that financial strain can have on students’ eating habits. 

“Socioeconomic status plays a major role in food in terms of your access to a range of foods or quality of foods,” Pernoud said. “That’s what’s really devastating: can I afford to buy food that’s healthy for my body?”

Williams brought up how food access can connect to harmful diet culture rhetoric. 

“There’s all these messages about food, feeling like you have to eat clean,” Williams said. “If people feel they don’t have access to that food, if they feel like they can’t get an organic kale salad and the only option is chicken fingers and fries, they might not eat anything.” 

Williams stated that it is important to look past the unhealthy messaging that many students receive before coming to college which tells them not to gain weight. 

“You were a teenager when you graduated high school,” Williams said. “You’re not going to look the same that you did in high school as you go through college, you are growing into an adult body. People say don’t gain the Freshman 15 in college, but you are gaining weight because you’re supposed to be.” 

Williams went on to say that the average onset age for eating disorders to begin is 18 to 21, which aligns with the age of the majority of college students. 

In order to counteract the messaging that students are receiving, Williams recommended not going on a diet and not comparing yourself to social media influencers, or their food and exercise habits.

“If every single one of us did the exact same workout, we would all still look different,” Williams said. “So that’s the problem when we get into those comparisons stages, where we look at someone who has a certain body type and they’re saying you can eat this and look like me.”

A student asked the panelists how to effectively continue their eating disorder recovery as someone with food allergies that require them to check the label of foods, which contain calorie counts and other potential triggering information.

In addition to discussing potential alternatives, such as preparing food at home before coming to campus, Pernoud also talked about reframing the narrative about seeing that information.

“Instead of letting the eating disorder voice come in and manipulate you to say, here’s what I shouldn’t have,” Pernoud said, “let your restored and authentic voice say, what is going to give me the nutrition I need? What’s going to allow my body to do the things that I need to do in my life, like go to school and have friends, exercise, and play my instrument?”

She said that it is important to try to reframe harmful thoughts about food. 

“There are certain things that we just can’t change about food, it is what it is,” Pernoud said. “So how can you change your perception, your experience of food, and how you’re relating emotionally and cognitively?”

After being asked about the pandemic, Williams spoke about how the global crisis caused an uptick in eating disorders as many felt the strain of constant anxiety. 

“A lot of the time a catalyst to an eating disorder is that sense of feeling out of control,” Williams said. “That’s what was happening during the pandemic, nobody knew what was going on, it was like, what’s happening, how do I deal with this? Oftentimes, eating disorders become an unhealthy coping skill, whether it is restricting [food intake] or chronic over-exercising.”

The panel also talked about how eating disorders can interact with other interpersonal dynamics in sex and relationships, which Pernoud has experience in as a couples therapist. 

“There’s a lot of overlap between sexual issues and eating disorders,” Pernoud said, “both are considered somatic issues, just meaning bodily or physical issues. When you’re nutritionally depleted, a lot happens to your body to try to compensate for that and when you have sexual issues compounding the eating disorder, then you’ll see that in your sexual life too.” 

Pernoud also explained that experiencing sexual violence can be the catalyst to an eating disorder, or make an already existing issue worse. 

“A lot of people, when they suffer from sexual traumas or assaults,” Pernoud said, “will do things to try to minimize their secondary sex characteristics or want to lose weight to become smaller and look invisible so they don’t attract attention.”

The panelists spoke about how the dynamic of a relationship can be changed when someone in the relationship has an eating disorder. 

“A lot of the time, the person who does not have an eating disorder will come in and try to be the dictator of their relationship,” Williams said. “That can cause resentment in the relationship because it feels like there’s a power dynamic where one person is controlling the other and the person with the disorder feels like this is their entire identity.”

As the panel concluded, Beauvais spoke briefly about more events the group has planned for their awareness week, including a NEDA walk. In an interview with Student Life, she explained that the group, previously known as Reflections, has shifted their mindset around eating disorders.

“We’ve kind of shifted to more of a body neutrality and body inclusivity framework as opposed to a body positivity framework after recognizing some of the shortcomings of that kind of model,” Beauvais said. 

Embody hopes to have a more direct impact on the culture surrounding food at WashU by engaging in more advocacy. 

“We’ve been particularly interested in advocating for change around the meal plan and diet culture on campus,” Beauvais said, “as well as more resources, like more information about eating disorders during freshman orientation. We would love to have students join us, having a diversity of perspectives is really important to us.”

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.