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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Seeing a gap in support, students team up to confront eating disorders

Struggling to adjust to college and get along with her roommates during her first semester at GW, Katie Duman’s anorexia spiraled out of control.

After battling anorexia since age 13, Duman slipped back into a pattern of overexercising and restricting herself to tiny meals. With her parents hundreds of miles away and no one to turn to on campus, she lost a lot of weight – too much weight.

“If my friends had known about this issue and it hadn’t been such a secretive thing, they would have said something,” she said. “Anyone who would have looked at me would have known for sure.”

Duman said her parents and doctor finally convinced her to get help from a nearby health clinic during her second semester at GW.

Now a senior, Duman helped start an eating disorder awareness organization called SPEAK GW, which stands for Students Promoting Eating Disorder Awareness and Knowledge. Duman, the vice president, said the group plans to not only raise awareness, but also prevent others from “going down the path” that she did. The group, which met for the first time last week, now has about a dozen members.

University officials are also working to fill the gap in campus resources. Associate Dean of Students Tim Miller said there’s too little information and help available to students with eating disorders, which affect up to 20 percent of women and up to 10 percent of men in college, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

“This is one of the biggest things facing college students that we don’t focus on,” Miller said. “We have a responsibility to provide for the needs of our students and I think this is an unmet need.”

The University Counseling Center is also hiring an eating disorder specialist to start working at GW next semester. The new counselor will serve as a liaison between the UCC and students, while working with staff and faculty to provide prevention and training programs.

Miller said he sat down this fall with a SPEAK leader, professors and staff at UCC, Student Health Services and the Lerner Health and Wellness Center to talk about the warning signs of eating disorders. He added that house staff will learn about eating disorders and appropriate responses at their January training sessions.

Duman said she hopes a more open and honest conversation will help make conversations about eating disorders more acceptable for college students.

“You tell people when you’re sick, you tell people what’s going on in your life. I don’t understand why anyone should feel the need to have to hide something like this,” Duman said.

In addition to handing out educational materials, Duman said she hopes SPEAK will offer a safe space for students to talk about their struggles and host panels to spread awareness among larger groups. She said that openness could help students who are in denial of their eating disorder.

“One of the things that would have changed me the most would have been to hear someone tell their story and be like, ‘Oh my gosh. That’s exactly like me. She did exactly what I’m scared to do and it got better,’” Duman said.

Duman said leaders of several groups on campus, including sororities, have been receptive to joining their education effort.

One freshman, who spent her summer in a residential treatment program for anorexia, said she arrived at GW thinking that a new environment would “solve” all of her problems. But instead old triggers were replaced with new ones and she again began overexercising and losing weight.

After she lost control over her eating disorder, she began commuting several times a week to meet with specialists at the Renfrew Center in Bestheda, Md. There, she meets with a nutritionist and therapist and attends group counseling sessions with other college students.

The student, who asked to remain anonymous because she has only told a few friends about her disorder, said she still struggles with body image as a member of Greek life, as she regularly compares her body to other girls’.

“When I’m with the sorority and I’m with the girls, it’s really hard not to make comparisons on bodies and image,” she said.

She said that she still struggles with feelings of depression, which can plunge her back into anorexic habits. But she said being in Greek life has benefits, too, because the community helps her deal with feelings of isolation linked to the disorder.

“When I’m left alone with my thoughts, that’s probably the most triggering at times,” she said. “Being in a sorority kind of forces me to get out of that.”

Rachael Abram, president of the Panhellenic Association, said being in a sorority can aggravate body image issues, as parties and mixers sometimes turn into an evening of members comparing themselves to their sorority sisters.

She said new members discussed body image issues at the Greek orientation for the first time this fall. She pointed to Halloween as a key example of how parties can fuel body image issues.

“If all your friends are dressed up in short skirts and you’re the girl who’s wearing a t-shirt then you feel bad because you’re not comfortable going to a party dressed like that,” said Abram, who added that some of her close friends struggle with eating disorders.

Danielle Cox, director of the Maryland-based Renfrew Center, said while more education is still necessary, eating disorders have become less taboo. She said it’s increasingly acceptable – and important – for individuals to talk to a friend who has lost a lot of weight or is more socially withdrawn.

“It’s always okay to point out to your friends and say, ‘I noticed you’re acting a little differently,’ or, ‘You’ve lost a lot of weight recently, do you feel okay?’” Cox said. “Although it may be uncomfortable, they’re helping their friend in the end.”

Recognizing the problem is an important step toward recovery, but it’s just the beginning of a long road that both Duman and the freshman called a constant struggle.

Duman, who also started attending group therapy sessions at the Renfrew Center this semester, stressed that people struggling with eating disorders must accept that recoveries can be hazy.

“It’s a constant job to be in recovery and kind of work on your life. It’s not just something that happens,” she said.

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