Speakers Ellen McCormack, the program director and primary therapist at residential treatment provider Center for Discovery, psychology Professor Dr. Nancy Dess and transformational coach Brandilyn Tebo ’15 presented ideas and research around eating disorders and body image during the Eating Disorder Awareness and Education Panel in Choi Auditorium Feb. 23. Resident Advisers Harper Hayes (sophomore) and Debra Skinner (junior) organized the panel, which was Occidental’s only school-wide event for National Eating Disorder Awareness week.
Hayes first realized how little she knew of eating disorders and how many people struggle with them at last year’s Active Minds event, Oxy from the Inside, and wanted to inform others about this issue.
“Eating disorders are very invisible,” Hayes said. “Especially on college campuses. It’s very shameful; it’s incredibly stigmatized, as far as mental illnesses go. So I think it is very important to bring them to the front, and talk about them, and understand what [those affected] are going through, and what their friends are going through.”
McCormack, who has worked with people with eating disorders for five years, spoke mainly about the signs, symptoms and treatments of eating disorders. She explained telltale signs of eating disorders, such as having a heavily restricted diet, citing allergies to stop eating or excusing oneself completely from a meal. Sometimes there are also compensatory behaviors such as exercising, medication misuse, caffeine addiction and frequent use of diet products.
There are multiple options for treating eating disorders, according to McCormack, including individual therapy, group therapy and consultations with psychiatrists or medical experts.
“What I find oftentimes most magical about treatments are the group therapy sessions or support groups,” McCormack said. “There is really nothing quite like talking to somebody who has been exactly in your shoes, and who might be a little farther down the road.”
While some people do experience relapses, McCormack said that this can often happen as part of the healing process. She explained that, unlike the abstinence model of substance addiction, people with eating disorders need to find a balanced lifestyle.
Taking a different approach to the topic, Dess addressed the psychological aspects of animals in general to explain her theories around eating. People, along with a few other animals, are both highly social and omnivorous — an uncommon combination, Dess said. This combination of qualities led her to some conclusions about how humans respond to situations where there is no food available. For example, a lack of nutrients can cause individuals to become more anxious or to think less rationally — behaviors that often drive disordered eating.
“Eating is a really vital organizing principle in the lives of social omnivores, and that is typical,” Dess said. “We have to eat, and we prefer to eat things that we like, and if that gets disrupted we can expect to see those effects ripple through social relationships, or emotional status and/or behavior.”
Tebo spoke broadly about the impact of body image in general. She explained her previous struggle with anorexia, which she said influences her current work as a public speaker and transformational coach. Tebo explained how her focus on her body image and eating behavior dictated every part of her life. Constantly worried about how others viewed her, she would judge and evaluate herself incessantly.
Attendee Lindsey Ingram (first year), who dealt with an eating disorder during high school, said she hopes more people will attend events on this topic in the future.
“Going to these presentations teaches you how to look for signs, teaches you how to handle the situation, because a lot of times when people are presented with it they don’t know what to do, and they don’t say anything, which can be detrimental to the person who is suffering from the eating disorder,” Ingram said.