By Bailey Brammer | Editor-in-Chief
Although the media often portrays people who have eating disorders as women who are extremely thin, both women and men of all shapes, sizes and weights can struggle with eating disorders or other food-related conditions.
Baylor is one of the few schools in the country that is equipped with an eating disorder specialist on campus. The addition of this position, as well as others, was part of the $5 million plan to expand Baylor’s Title IX Office, Counseling Center and Department of Public Safety in 2016.
“We looked at other schools across the country that were really tier one, top level schools, and one of the things we’ve found is that they typically had someone who was an eating disorder specialist,” said Dr. Jim Marsh, executive director for Counseling Services. “We had that opportunity to hire additional staff, and we decided to hire an eating disorder specialist … because that’s such a unique area, [it] requires a lot of training and experience.”
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, one college showed the number of college students with eating disorders has increased from 23 percent to 32 percent among females and 7.9 percent to 25 percent among males from 2000 to 2013. Baylor’s eating disorder specialist, Erin McGinty, was hired in January 2017 and said while there are many students on campus that deal with eating disorders, there isn’t one singular factor that causes eating disorders. It’s different for everyone, she said.
McGinty listed some of the aspects that can lead to eating disorders as perfectionism, body image distortion and adjusting to a big life change, such as going to or graduating from college, among other stressors. Just as the causes of eating disorders differ among individuals, so too are Baylor’s treatment options tailored to students on a case-by-case basis.
Students can schedule a meeting with McGinty at the Counseling Center in the McLane Student Life Center, and Marsh said since her arrival nearly a year ago, she’s been thankful that Baylor has been able to provide this additional service to its students.
“If you look at her schedule, you definitely see that there’s a strong demand for her,” Marsh said. “She stays really booked up all the time, so that’s probably the greatest testament the need that is there.”
Along with the opportunity to meet with McGinty for a counseling session, students who may be coping with an eating disorder also have the option to meet with Lisa MacMaster, staff nurse practitioner for Baylor Health Services, or Courtney De La Rosa, Aramark dietitian. MacMaster can discuss eating disorders from a medical standpoint and De La Rosa is available to help students plan meals and navigate Baylor dining halls.
The Counseling Center also offers an eating disorder support group that meets once a week. The group’s participants range from first-year students to graduate students and include people who struggle with purging, binge-eating, over-exercising, restricting and other common food-related issues.
While students do not have to meet with McGinty to attend the group session, they do have to go through a screening process. McGinty said one of the battles someone with an eating disorder works to overcome is feelings of isolation, and the thoughts that they’re on their own in whatever they’re going through.
“Most of the students seen for eating disorders feel alone in their disorder, and ––because eating disorders can be secretive –– often don’t realize that there are other students struggling with the same issues of body image, worthlessness and food,” McGinty said. “Part of what we try to do in treatment is connect students to other students who experience eating disorders, in ways such as group therapy. We try to help students find supportive friends and family to talk to, and we can also help friends and family find ways to best support their loved ones.”
Signs of an eating disorder can appear differently in everyone, but McGinty listed a few common indicators as:
- Isolation during meals
- Making excuses to avoid eating with others
- Significant weight gains or losses
- New interest in fad diets, or other significant changes in diet (becoming a vegetarian or vegan)
- Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, exercise
- Rigid beliefs around food, especially eating “healthy,” that aren’t driven by allergies or medical concerns
- Excessive exercise
- Large amounts of food that go missing
- Large amounts of empty food containers or wrappers in the trash
McGinty said these signs tend to manifest themselves as trends over time, and someone with an eating disorder will often present with multiple signs.
“It’s kind of hard because our society tells us to eat healthy or to diet or to eat whole wheat bread versus white bread,” McGinty said. “So I think that sometimes it’s easy to miss things like that because society tells us that that’s good … but sometimes there are people that take that to an extreme.”
If various signs of an eating disorder have become evident in a friend, family member or loved one, McGinty recommends using “I language” to bring attention to their developing habits –– for example, “I noticed, I saw, I wondered, I was curious.” This gives the person an opportunity to talk about the observations, rather than jumping to the defensive and feeling attacked, as can be the case with “you language.”
McGinty said if someone is concerned about an individual but doesn’t want to bring it up in conversation or isn’t very close to the person, they can always make an anonymous report through Baylor’s Report It website. This allows the Student Life Department to contact the person who may be coping with an eating disorder and check in to see if they are in need of some of Baylor’s resources. McGinty also said students can come to the Counseling Center during walk-in hours and meet with someone on staff to discuss the best way to approach the topic with their friends and loved ones.
Media representation of eating disorders is becoming more popular, such as Netflix’s 2017 film “To the Bone.” The film follows a young woman (Lily Collins) who restricts food and struggles to admit that she needs help after she is moved to a treatment center by her family. McGinty said it’s important to remember that people who deal with eating disorders are not just skinny young women, that help is available and treatment can and does have positive aspects.
“It’s true that it can be really difficult for people to decide that they want to go get help, to get to the point where they feel like they need help,” McGinty said. “I also think there’s a feeling that media portrayal sometimes tends to focus more on the anorexia side of things, which probably collides with some people’s stereotypes of what it means to have an eating disorder. But I think that there seems to be a wish that the media would do a better job at representing all of the different eating disorders equally, especially since binge eating is such a prevalent disorder … it doesn’t feel like that gets that much attention, even though that impacts both men and women the most.”
Despite the media’s depiction of eating disorders, McGinty said she hopes people who are dealing with eating disorders know they’re not alone and that their struggles are not uncommon, especially at Baylor.
“With any mental health, I think it’s about building a support system,” McGinty said. “I think a lot of people think they understand eating disorders and they don’t; families think they understand eating disorders but they don’t. There’s no shame … people feel broken and defective, and they’re not. It’s just a thing that they struggle with, and we all have things that we struggle with and need help with.”