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Negative body images result from college pressures

Eating disorders, self image and over-exercising plague Elon

Leanne Jernigan / Copy Editor

Jodi Poretskin, a 2003 Elon University graduate, has struggled with her body image all her life. The issue came up at the delicate age of five and by the time she was 11 years old Jodi had begun her first diet. When she came to Elon she became obsessive-compulsive about dieting and exercise. She is now suffering long-term, devastating effects because of her body-image issues. Doctors told Poretskin she may never have children of her own.

Poretskin’s case is extreme and few Elon students have her problem, but there are some other cases that do raise awareness. Lori and Hannah are Elon students who preferred to remain anonymous in their comments for this article.

Lori is a healthy looking girl who visits the gym five to six times a week for at least an hour and a half. Lori may not have a body-image issue, but she observes the culture of Elon’s fitness center and its over-zealous regulars as they fight for that “perfect body.”

Hannah participates in ROTC and dance team at Elon. One would say in terms of pressure about body image that Hannah has it the worst. Every month ROTC officers weigh her to make sure she’s “on track.” At every football and basketball game she has to face crowds of people while dancing in skin-tight unflattering costumes.

A national issue hits Elon

In a recent study it was reported that more than half of the females between the ages of 18 and 25 would prefer to be run over by a truck than be fat, and two-thirds surveyed would rather be mean or stupid. In another study conducted by an Elon student, Ashley E. Simms, who presented her work at the Student Undergraduate Research Forum found that “studies have publicized that body attractiveness is so highly cherished that it is now the single leading cause to many individuals’ lack of physical self-worth.”

“Statistics show that 91 percent of women attempt to control their weight by dieting,” said Annmarie Carter, a personal counselor at Elon University’s Counseling Services. “That says to me that 91 percent of women are dissatisfied with their body.”

“National statistics show that this is a big and growing problem on college campuses,” said Dianne Ford, a faculty adviser for Elon’s Eating and Body Image Concerns Network (EBIC).

First-year Elon students’ body image and health behaviors were assessed in a survey by Eric Hall, an assistant professor of sports medicine and exercise science. Last semester, Hall and health and human performance lecturer Resa Walch surveyed 400 freshmen about their attitudes regarding body satisfaction. Twenty-six point nine percent of females surveyed said they were “at least somewhat dissatisfied” with their body and 12.8 percent were “at least quite or extremely dissatisfied.”

“The first year is probably the most crucial year,” Hall said. “You’re getting away from a support network that was at home. We know there’s a body image problem on this campus. It’s in the culture - it’s what we see.”

The methods at Elon: Eating disorders

“Most commonly folks with an eating disorder start off with a diet - they only want to lose a few pounds,” Carter said. “It evolves to become a full blown case.”

The two most common eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia. Anorexia deals with a person’s refusal to gain weight, disturbance of body image and the inability to maintain a certain weight. The individual suffering has difficulty taking in enough calories to maintain that healthy weight, oftentimes resulting in severe weight loss. It is the most fatal of all mental illnesses. The mortality rate for anorexia is between 10 and 25 percent.

Bulimia is generally eating large amounts of food in a short period of time, usually within a span of two hours, then trying to get rid of the food by various methods; purging, laxatives or over-exercising. The individual consumes more than what is considered a normal meal.

“An eating disorder is a symptom of a greater issue,” Carter said. “The most common issue is control. Eating disorders are coping mechanisms for life stresses and issues.”

Over-exercising

Excessive exercise can be labeled as “exercise dependence.” Scholars say that psychological behaviors are the basis for over-exercising.

“The method of over-exercising is on the rise,” Hall said. “One of the reasons why it’s so popular is because people view it as a positive thing, a positive behavior. There has been more and more research which shows that people over-exercise solely for weight loss and not the health benefit.”

Hall recommends that people accomplish no more than 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise most days of the week or they should exercise three to five days a week for 20 to 60 minutes. The key is that this guideline doesn’t require workout every day of the week. “The difference is in intensity level and days of rest,” Hall said. “ That’s the problem with over-exercisers - they don’t have that day off.”

Lori’s story

Some would look at Lori and disregard the notion that she has a body-image issue even though she spends probably just as much time at the gym as she does studying. Nevertheless, because she does spend so much time at the gym she sees first-hand what fellow students are going through.

“Some of the things that I see at the gym every day bother me,” Lori said. “Like people that weigh themselves constantly. I see girls weigh themselves before and after they work out.”

She also knows of people that come to the gym to workout more than once a day. “There’s this girl that I see every time I’m at the gym in the afternoon,” Lori said. “She’s so skinny. And I know she comes in the mornings too.”

The last trigger that gets Lori’s attention are students who work out with notebooks in hand. “I always see people walk around the gym with little notebooks,” Lori said. “Some of them are keeping a calorie count.”

Lori’s determination to stay fit and healthy requires her to fight for machines at the gym and try to shrug off peers who seem OCD about their own routine workout.

Hannah’s story

The biggest pressure for Hannah comes from ROTC. “It shouldn’t be that way,” she explained. “I’ve lost somewhere around 20 pounds since the beginning of the year. I still have to lose more. I’m five foot, six inches and they say I need to be 142 pounds.” She says the officers tell her how much weight to lose, even at times threatening to take away her scholarship if the pounds don’t fall off.

Pressure from dance comes from a different area - her peers. There’s more of a pressure to be skinny in order to “look good” in the outfits they wear,” Hannah said. “I hate dancing now because I hate wearing those outfits. People give us a hard time about it. Girls come up to us and say rude comments about losing weight.”

“I actually sort of slipped into a depression last year because of my body image,” Hannah said. She attributes one specific instance to triggering her obsession with her weight. It came in health class freshman year. “We had to do physical fitness tests where the teacher measured our body fat and we had to count how many push-ups and sit-ups we could do. Stuff like that,” she said. “I could do more sit-ups and push-ups than any football player in my class, but I still fell under the ‘obese’ category according to my weight.”

Hannah looks back to last year and is proud of the progress she’s made. She is now closer than ever to ROTC’s target weight for her height.

Jodi’s story

When Poretskin came to Elon she thought her eating disorder was under control. She didn’t count on an obsessive-compulsive disorder kicking in. Feeling the pressure to be a role model, Poretskin began dieting again while her exercise routines got out of control.

“My goal became to burn more calories in a day than it was physically healthy to burn in a week,” she said.

For a second time, Poretskin had to be persuaded to get professional help. After graduation she again became exercise-dependent to the point which it hindered her health. Once more she sought medical help. Poretskin is still waiting to hear from doctors if her condition might improve and she may eventually be able to have children.

Contact Leanne Jernigan at pendulum@elon.edu or 278-7247.

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