Before Miranda Ward won the Miss UA title, she struggled with her body image for years. Ward, a junior majoring in public relations, said she struggled with bulimia before getting help.
“I know how hard it can be to come out of such a dark place,” Ward said. “Eating disorders have such a stigma attached to them in society, and because of that there are so many silent screams for help.”
Ward is not alone. Many young people, especially college students, struggle with body image and eating disorders.
Leah Cayson, a graduate student in the community journalism program, chose to study body image on campus for her graduate project.
“Body image has always been a personal interest,” Cayson said. “The media helped create the issue, so what if we could help solve it?”
Cayson created a blog called “What Is Beautiful” for which she interviews UA students who have suffered from body image issues or eating disorders.
“A lot of people think that body image is having an eating disorder – you have to be anorexic, you have to be bulimic – but it’s not that,” Cayson said. “It’s just waking up in the morning and not being happy with the way you look.”
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 91 percent of women on college campuses have tried to control their weight at one point, whether through dieting or developing an eating disorder.
“At our age, we are exposed to so much in media that tells us that we must fit into a certain mold to be considered beautiful,” Ward said. “It really is a hard thing to go through because many people don’t credit it as a condition that needs legitimate medical attention. Some are even so cruel as to believe it is only a way for someone to get attention.”
Cayson said there are common misconceptions between the definition of body image and eating disorders.
“There are different reasons for eating disorders, and it’s related to body image if you’re doing it because you’re unhappy with the way you look,” Cayson said. “But if there’s something else in your life that’s not right – you’re depressed about something, school, family – and that’s the cause of the eating disorder, that’s not body image.”
One of the students Cayson interviewed for her project was Dani Sullivan.
Sullivan, a freshman majoring in journalism, was a cheerleader throughout high school and struggled with the way her body looked.
“I had done competitive cheerleading for seven years, so being skinny was always pressured,” Sullivan said, “If you were not a flyer you should still be just as skinny as they are.”
Although Sullivan never developed an eating disorder, being “thicker” than the other girls often troubled her. In an effort to overcome her insecurities, Sullivan said she started working out every day.
When people think of eating disorders, most think of anorexia and bulimia, or people who strive to be thin. But, there is another category of disordered eating: overeating.
Cecilia, a member of Overeaters Anonymous said she battled with compulsive overeating for a long time.
“I spent many years of my life numbing myself with overeating,” Cecilia said, “I really was not present to life and experienced little joy or satisfaction.”
Cecilia said with the help of Overeaters Anonymous, a national group founded more than 50 years ago to adapt a 12-step program created to combat alcoholism for addressing the consumption of food, she lost 40 pounds and has since been able to maintain a healthy weight for more than 10 years.
The campus chapter of OA meets every Thursday at the University Presbyterian Church. There is no membership fee, and unlike other health groups, there are no weigh-ins for members.
“[OA] provides a support system of individuals who through shared experience, strength and hope, are recovering from such unhealthy relationships with food,” Cecilia said. “OA’s principles can be applied to help with compulsive overeating, binge eating disorder, compulsive over-exercising, anorexia, bulimia and any other pathological relationship with food. The principles of OA help remove the sufferer’s focus from food and body to living a balanced, fulfilling life.”
Even though many students suffer from body image issues, there are simple ways to appreciate your body. The University recently hosted a Body Image Appreciation Week to promote positive self-image.
“I think the way to promote positive body image is to start with yourself and come to terms that nobody is perfect,” Cayson said. “Imperfect is okay.”
For more information on body image and Cayson’s project, go to whatisbeauty.ua.edu. For information on Overeaters Anonymous, contact Cecilia at (205) 292-5242.
Editor’s note: Miss UA Miranda Ward no longer struggles with bulimia. She wants to reduce the stigma on discussion of the topic, she said, by fostering conversation.