As her dream of becoming a Dallas Stars dancer drew closer, Hayley Briscoe found herself spending more time in a studio surrounded by mirrors. Her reflection seemed to mock her from all angles, and she eventually succumbed to the pressure.
Years of battling a range of eating disorders took a toll.
“I love dance so much, but the body image kind of made me think of dance differently and it wasn’t something that I loved anymore,” Briscoe, a psychology junior, said. “It made me feel really isolated. I had negative self-esteem, and those thoughts were always in my head with food and body.”
Forty percent of UTD’s registered dietitian’s caseload involves eating disorders, making Briscoe one of the students fighting a negative body image.
To combat this attitude, the Student Wellness Center, the Student Counseling Center and the Center for Students in Recovery hosted events from Feb. 26 to March 4 as part of Eating Disorder Awareness Week.
Sara Asberry, the registered dietitian on campus, works with students daily on their eating habits and often encounters a vast array of eating disorders. They range from restriction of food, binging and purging, replacing meals with alcohol or an obsession with being healthy.
Asberry said there is a common misconception that in order to have an eating disorder you have to be a certain size or look a certain way, but, in reality, anyone can suffer from a severe eating disorder.
“UTD’s campus is very diverse, but unfortunately so are eating disorders,” she said. “They do not discriminate and we see males, females, transgender clients, international students, even people in their thirties.”
Briscoe struggled with a combination of over-exercising and binging and purging in high school. She became involved with The Elisa Project, an advocacy group that aids people in overcoming eating disorders, to beat her problem.
“It impacted every aspect of my life, including my relationship with family and friends,” Briscoe said. “I’m a dancer, and that was a big part of my struggles with my eating disorder.”
After conquering her illness, Briscoe used her work with The Elisa Project in order to help others people do the same.
“I feel really grateful to be a voice for a lot of people who don’t necessarily have one when they’re struggling and I feel like a big weight has been lifted off,” Briscoe said. “I don’t have those thoughts anymore and I am able to enjoy dance like I used to. I have so much better relationships with my family and school work and things I couldn’t do before.”
Even though eating disorders are common among college students, few people seek help, said Jenna Temkin, a psychologist at the Student Counseling Center. Temkin said the rate has only increased over the past four decades, with reports that 50 percent of college women and 33 percent of men engage in behavior that indicates an eating disorder.
“Eating disorders preoccupy and take up so much of people’s thoughts,” Temkin said. “The normal person might think about their body a little bit throughout the day and move on, but the person with the eating disorder is thinking of the food they are eating and the body that they are in 100 percent of the time. It is a total preoccupation.”
Due to societal standards of beauty, it’s natural feel the pressure to diet and shape themselves to fit a socially acceptable appearance, Asberry said. While healthy results are the goal, problematic behavior, such as addiction, has also resulted from trying to fit a mold.
“I have had students describe to me that getting on the scale and seeing the number go down was intoxicating for them, and they wanted it every day,” Asberry said. “And to the point where they would reach a certain weight, they still wanted this feeling and so you have to keep doing more and more extreme behaviors in order to try and maintain that and eventually something’s got to give.”
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses combined, according to recent research done by The Elisa Project.
“One person dies every 62 minutes because of an eating disorder,” Temkin said. “There is a need for awareness, there is a need for people to seek help, and there are people that can help here at the university.”
The Body Project, a research-based group on campus run by students and faculty, has students talk about how they feel about their bodies and how media influences that view. They host sessions in which leaders go through scripts with students acknowledging good things about their bodies and discuss ways to stay positive.
Child learning development and psychology senior Kaylie Hartman is a leader in the body project.
“The Body Project isn’t just for people struggling with their bodies, you can learn how to be body positive and share it,” Hartman said. “Even if you take the food aspect out of the body project it is just really encouraging and changes your mindset on how you see yourself, talk about yourself, and talk about other people.”
Because they use a predetermined program, The Body Project is only open to females. They are looking to soon release a male-focused script.
“We challenge fat talk and really talk about how we feel in our own bodies and how that feeling is enhanced or affected by what we see and hear,” Asberry said. “It’s amazing how triggered we can be by things that we thought we were much stronger around.”
UTD offers guidance and help regarding eating disorders through The Student Counseling Center, The Body Project, The Elisa Project and the Student Health Center.
“Positivity is just as contagious as negativity, and if we can harness that and talk more positively about our bodies I think we leave less room for the negative comments about them,” Asberry said.