Content warning: eating disorders
During the last event of the Purpose, Authenticity, Transformation & Head/Heart Dialogue Program hosted by the Peabody Office of Professional and Graduate Education, Ivana Zacarias, M.Ed., shared her experience with anorexia nervosa, a chronic illness she fought against for over seven years. In her opening address, she pointed out that while many factors – biological, environmental and psychological – predispose diverse populations to eating disorders, high-achieving young women like herself are among the most susceptible. Her talk invited both health professionals and educators to come together and mobilize resources in order to help students who are struggling with or at risk of developing an eating disorder.
“I always had the highest GPA growing up before I eventually got into Harvard,” Zacarias said. “I checked all the boxes, I was fulfilling everyone’s expectation. With all my credentials, nobody ever noticed that something bad was happening to me.”
I have had friends tell me that they starved themselves on Christmas Eve to “better integrate” into Greek life in the spring semester
Ivana’s talk was aimed at women at Vanderbilt experiencing distress at a school with competitive academics and a prominent sorority system. Vanderbilt’s status as a competitive university and its reputation for having good-looking female students creates both academic and social pressures that are potentially damaging to a young woman’s self-perception. As anxiety about grades and body image intensifies, so does the perfectionist mindset that can sometimes provoke, sustain and even mask unhealthful relationships with food. One study revealed that 58 percent of female college students felt pressure to be a certain weight. Another study indicated that sorority membership has a significant effect on increasing a young women’s likelihood of engaging in weight-related behaviors, including dieting, trying to lose weight, vomiting or use of laxatives and diet pills.
Personal accounts of problematic eating are not just stories circulated among prospies to mythologize Vanderbilt as an elite, “work hard, play hard” institution. As both a female student and a member of Greek life, I have had friends tell me that they starved themselves on Christmas Eve to “better integrate” into Greek life in the spring semester, to look like the stereotypical sorority girl. And I am not a stranger to using food as a measure against my productivity and self-worth: by controlling my diet and my body through harsh self-discipline, I create the illusion of empowerment and agency. This mirage of control puts me in a mindset where I believe I can control other things, like academics. Even though one is made weaker by the dieting, the mental and physical discipline needed to maintain such diets can make one feel powerful. Additionally, I have heard other female peers confess publicly or in private that a phenomenon referred to as “drunkorexia,” partially fueled by the drinking culture on campus, has been on the rise. This practice involves restricting caloric intake throughout the day to avoid weight gain from drinking alcoholic beverages heavily at night.
To its credit, the university has identified the need to assist its students with disordered eating. It offers screening and medical referral services at the Student Health Center and psychological counseling services at the University Counseling Center. In a conversation with The Hustler, Vanderbilt’s dietitian Meredith Williams spoke about the increased training around eating disorders she made available for RAs, VUceptors and faculty. Other parts of the Vanderbilt community have made combating mental illness a priority. For example, the Greek Community has established “Come to Me” week, which encourages members of the Vanderbilt community to open up about their personal experiences with mental health. Additionally, the Faculty Senate strongly urged Greek organizations to work towards reducing body-image and eating-related disorders for all female students.
incoming members of Greek Life are expected to take rigorous steps to meet and reinforce the cultural fixation on the ideal feminine appearance.
However, there has been no large-scale initiative to combat the toxic environment that produces this diet culture in the first place. While we reassure our students that they can find the help they need at Vanderbilt, we accept by default that anyone who has been smart and hardworking enough to have gotten in will continue to be on top of their academics and take responsibility for their own well-being. We don’t take into account that attending Vanderbilt requires transitioning into a high-demand environment away from their established care network at home. Even with the increased awareness that it is okay to have problems we can’t solve on our own, these expectations for students who attend elite schools hardly change. Whenever the name Vanderbilt is dropped, we hear “prestige,” “Harvard of the South,” and “happiest students,” which makes it hard to open up about personal struggles and subsequently seek any necessary help.
More importantly, the significant relationship between problematic eating and women on college campuses speaks directly to a sexist culture that we, as a university, perpetuate. Too often, we not only accept but embrace extreme and alarming language that objectifies and hypersexualizes women. Vanderbilt has long been known as a school that has the most attractive girls; sororities gain status if women deemed “hot” become members. While we shouldn’t ignore that eating problems may take shape in men, men’s social organizations here at Vanderbilt aren’t being judged and ranked on their physical attractiveness. On the other hand, potential new members who wish to join a sorority are given meticulous dress codes, often being scored on their looks (given that rounds are usually too short to develop deeper conversations) and are incentivized to rate their top chapters based on reviews from Greekrank. As a result, incoming members of Greek Life are expected to take rigorous steps to meet and reinforce the cultural fixation on the ideal feminine appearance. By upholding superficial and oftentimes statistically skewed rankings of women by sexual appeal, we risk forcing them to meet these ideals at the expense of their mental and physical health.
It is heartening that Vanderbilt has taken steps to create a mental health infrastructure to help inflicted students. However, in order to truly realize the values of this infrastructure, we at Vanderbilt need a cultural change. We must ask: “If young women want to deviate from the norm, how do we create a culture that gives them the liberty and respect to do so?”
Corrine Liu is a junior in the College of Arts and Science. She can be reached at email@example.com.