Every day, 4,000 to 6,000 people visit Cal Poly’s state-of-the-art Recreation Center to exercise.
Cal Poly has long been deemed a “fit” campus, with an extremely health-conscious student body and a culture of 24/7 exercise.
Though exercising and eating healthy are parts of a well-rounded lifestyle, it can sometimes get out of hand for many Cal Poly students.
According to 2016 data from the Healthy Minds Study, Cal Poly has lower rates of obesity and higher rates of eating disorders compared to the national average, causing campus experts to grow increasingly more concerned about a specific branch of eating disorders — exercise-induced anorexia.
With Cal Poly’s perceived health and exercise standards, students are faced with an incredible pressure to follow a certain aesthetic, which ends up manifesting itself into a potentially life-threatening eating disorder.
Registered dietitian Libby Parker says exercise-induced anorexia is a trend that’s been growing on campus.
“We’re seeing a lot of students getting straight A’s and having horrible relationships with food because that’s something they’re working on controlling when they’re out of control in the rest of their life,” Parker said. “It seems like everyone’s super fit [at Cal Poly], trying to get the beach body and go to the gym all the time.”
A double barreled shotgun
Eating disorders can be caused by a combination of genetics and environment. If the individual’s family members have a history of mental illness or an individual is experiencing significant life changes, it may provoke an existing predisposition to eating disorders.
For business administration senior Forrester Fringer, that was exactly what happened.
Freshman year of college, Fringer weighed 220 pounds. By the end of the year, he lost 70 pounds and weighed around 150 pounds.
“You’re surrounded by so many people, it’s just an influx of personalities and different body shapes and lifestyles. It’s really intimidating, especially going to Cal Poly,” Fringer said. “Everyone is fit and looks the same and has this fitness mentality where it’s not that they’re going to the gym because they want to be healthy; they’re going to the gym because they want to look good.”
On top of that, both of his parents had previously diagnosed eating disorders in their youth — Fringer’s mom was anorexic while his dad still has bulimia.
The simultaneous pressure of living in an environment like the resident halls and his genetic disposition caused Fringer to develop exercise-induced anorexia, one of the deadliest eating disorders due to the impact it can have on the body.
“The scariest thing for me is that anorexia nervosa has the highest rate of death among any psychiatric illness [due to] … suicide because they’re just getting to that point, or heart failure due to the lack of nutrition which can cause the body organs to start shutting down,” Parker said.
A mindful approach
Fringer learned to cope with his eating disorder through the help of a good support system, including friends who are able to keep him accountable when he’s feeling down even if they don’t know what it’s like to have an eating disorder.
“What it takes is someone saying, ‘I know you had a hard day, but tomorrow is a new day, so you can work to change that and have a better day tomorrow. And even if you don’t, I’m still here for you,’” Fringer said.
Fringer also noted that it’s important to set realistic expectations, keep yourself accountable and keep your priorities in check.
“Having a six-pack probably shouldn’t be at the top of your priorities list; but waking up every day feeling like you’ve had enough sleep, drinking enough water, eating enough food and feeling confident in yourself, those are the things that should be at the top of your list,” Fringer said.
Eating disorders are tricky to diagnose due to the behaviors associated with them, which can be considered healthy at the base level. Students who typically eat healthier and go to the gym may not be categorized as having an eating disorder. However, once those habits become more rigid and start impeding on the quality of life of the student, that’s where it becomes more complicated.
“A lot of times, people have a hard time coming to grips with how much they are really obsessing or thinking about [dieting, exercise, body image],” eating disorders coordinator Dr. Sarah Park said. “When dieting, making sure they go to the gym or thinking about their body starts impeding on their life in some way that is no longer useful, that’s when I’d say those are red flags.”
This is especially true for Cal Poly and the exercise culture that has been so closely associated with the campus. “Fitspiration,” a hashtag created on social media focused on fitness motivation, led to a new categorization of anorexia called “orthorexia.” Its symptoms are a combination of exercising obsessively and the typical eating restrictions common with anorexia, creating the idea that more exercise and less caloric intake is the formula for becoming fit.
“Everyone should get some sort of exercise and movement in their day. I’m not saying we should be sedentary, we definitely should move, but these fitness bloggers are making it look like they’re exercising 24/7,” Parker said.
However, it’s not as simple as just eliminating the hashtag. Fitspiration may very well be the motivating factor that pushes students into the gym to work out. But when the underlying message of “Fitspiration” warps into something that causes more self-harm than good, that’s when at-risk individuals are at greater risk.
“If that’s what it takes to motivate you, then more power to you. But I think it should be a healthy check of ‘Hey, this person is a completely different person than me, with different genetics and a different body than me. They have a different lifestyle than me,’ and no matter how often I try to emulate that, there are things that are going to keep you who you are and you need to embrace that,” Fringer said.
The Body Project
The health center and counseling services have recently developed an eating disorder treatment team — comprised of dietitians, physicians, nurse practitioners and medical doctors — to ensure follow-ups and ultimately a better recovery rate for students.
In addition, the issue of eating disorders on campus has pushed the creation of the Body Project. This series of student-led workshops strives to reduce negative body talk, increase positive body image and shift the focus away from biased social media messages by getting the whole campus to be more body positive.
“There’s a ton of research on the workshops that show this can head off first symptoms of eating disorders and help people to not engage,” Parker said.
The Body Project club focuses its efforts on doing more outreach on eating disorders awareness week, recovery day and spreading positive messages about body image.
Line of first defense
The prevalence of eating disorders on campus is difficult to gauge since they are not openly discussed.
“It’s really easy to hide them and a lot of people with eating disorders are at a normal weight so it’s not like ‘That person is emaciated, they have an eating disorder.’ It could be anyone, it could be anyone walking around that has an eating disorder and you might not know it,” Parker said.
Since eating disorders involve subtle behavioral patterns, it is usually friends and family of the individual with eating disorders that notice at first. A good way of talking to someone about their eating disorder is by using “I” statements such as “I’m concerned that you’re doing XYZ,” because it shows concern in a non-threatening manner.
Supporters can also help out individuals with eating disorders by accompanying them to the health center, talking to them openly about what’s going on in their lives or anything that can help to reduce the stigma.
In addition to paying attention to warning signs among friends and family, it’s important to recognize the symptoms of an eating disorder in your own behavior. Part of that process is checking in with yourself and being honest about certain behaviors.
“When we’re really honest with ourselves, we know that something isn’t quite right,” Park said. “Oftentimes I think friends and families have a hard time bringing it up, but if you do start getting those conversations of ‘Hey I’m a little bit worried,’ pay attention to those and give them some thought.”
Fringer was able to transform his mindset toward his eating disorder after treatment with a psychiatrist. By treating exercise as a way of making his body feel good, instead of a quota he needed to fill in order to eat, he was able to transform his habits and have a healthier relationship with his body.
“If you’re feeling lost and you’re feeling like you want to take control of your life, be it your eating or your fitness level, it’s realizing that there are so many things that you can do to motivate your wellness and to motivate your body,” Fringer said. “It just takes finding whatever motivates you. And once you realize that you’ve found something you’re passionate about, it transforms the rest of your life.”