Words by Laila Hodd
Trigger warning: this article discusses the topic of eating disorders.
For those of us that struggle with our relationship with food, University is difficult at the best of times. Recently however, with the ‘Circuit Break’ lockdown here in Wales and the second lockdown in England preventing English students from returning home, as well as more general concerns about the pandemic and online teaching, mental health struggles can be amplified.
Being stuck in, unable to see friends and family outside of your household or participate in sports and work in the library without having to book a slot, has naturally had a detrimental impact on people’s mental wellbeing.
“Lockdown has left many of us feeling more isolated than ever”
For the approximately 1.25 million people in the UK who suffer with eating disorders (Beat eating disorders) lockdown has been incredibly challenging. Many of us may have turned to food as form of control or comfort during a very difficult year and access to much needed support has been made considerably harder to come by. Lockdown has left many of us feeling more isolated than ever.
Those with specific routines around food or ‘safe’ foods may have found the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic difficult and the multiple lockdowns has likely made recovery even more difficult for those bravely embarking on the process.
In addition, people’s fixation with ‘lockdown weight’ can be very triggering. It is natural for our bodies to change with time and for our weight to fluctuate, especially when we are living through a global pandemic and our daily routines have been thrown out of balance, it is therefore very damaging to demonize weight gain. Furthermore, the emphasis on exercise and weight loss that we saw on social media during lockdown must have been difficult for those struggling.
With all this going on the University environment can amplify struggles surrounding eating disorders.
University exposes you to an increased workload, lack of structure and a change in environment, all of which has an impact on mental health. This can trigger or begin the development of an eating disorder- which often manifest themselves as a way of finding control in an otherwise stressful environment. Furthermore, University, under normal circumstances, is a highly social environment meaning comparison to all the new people you are meeting is natural and body image issues may develop.
“while anyone of any age can develop an eating disorder, girls and young women aged 12-20 are at especially high risk.”
In the Royal College of Psychiatrists 2011 report: ‘Mental health of students in higher education’ it was highlighted that undergraduate students are particularly vulnerable to developing eating disorders. Beat, the UK based eating disorder charity, also highlights the fact that ‘while anyone of any age can develop an eating disorder, girls and young women aged 12-20 are at especially high risk.’
What struck me when I started University is the way in which disordered eating is such a normalised part of student culture. Diet culture is unfortunately very prevalent in our everyday lives, but at University, an environment in which you are surrounded with people your own age who put a lot of value on looks and weight, these ideas become intensified.
“Demonising weight gain only perpetuates unhealthy relationships with food and our bodies”
Again, I want to stress the fact that it is natural for our bodies to change and the demonisation of weight gain at University is far too evident, especially when referencing ideas such as ‘freshers 15’. In a similar way to the Coronavirus pandemic, starting University sees your daily routine change, so naturally bodies change too. What we need to do is normalise this. Demonising weight gain only perpetuates unhealthy relationships with food and our bodies.
Diet talk, skipping meals and comparison to others – what they are eating, how much they are exercising and what their body looks like –seems to become part of daily life. It is considered normal to skip meals because you don’t want to appear bloated in certain outfit or to allow for a night of heavy drinking and the extra calories that it involves. These notions not only perpetuate diet culture but are very damaging to those struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder due to the fact they normalise disordered behaviours.
“For those struggling it can be incredibly hard to put the way you are feeling into words or describe the way you think about food, but opening up about your struggle will help”
Unfortunately, because of the way in which these habits are normalised I, like many of my fellow students, have often overlooked my own struggles with food and considered them ‘normal’. I live in a house of girls and while they provide a great support system, there is naturally, discussions of food, weight and appearance, and these conversations can be triggering. For those struggling it can be incredibly hard to put the way you are feeling into words or describe the way you think about food, but opening up about your struggle will help.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, disordered eating or know someone who is below are some places to find support:
Studentline – 0808 801 0811
text ‘STUDENT’ to 85258 or call 0808 1895260 between 4pm and 11pm
Alternatively contact the Student Union’s mental health support or your GP