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'Perfectionist ideal' for UNC students could create disordered eating

The Student Recreation Center is one of many places on campus where students can work out for free.

It’s a Sunday night in mid-January. 

The first and second floors of the Student Recreation Center are packed with weightlifters, runners and Zumba dancers. There are lines of students waiting to step onto the treadmills to fulfill their New Year resolutions of losing 10 pounds and getting their spring break bodies.

But within this group of students satisfying their desire to be healthier hides the need to fit the “perfect Carolina student ideal” — for some, a detrimental gateway to disordered eating and to others in recovery from eating disorders, a trigger.

Senior Anna Dodson always enjoyed exercising and was a competitive dancer before coming to college. During her first year at UNC she took up running as an outlet from her pre-med studies. She liked how conducive the campus was to living a healthy lifestyle. She was confident in her body, she felt secure. 

But in the second semester of her junior year, she started to experience the other side of the UNC student lifestyle. 

“Like the typical Carolina student, I pretty much had every minute of my life scheduled,” Dodson said. “But underneath my busy-ness, I felt like a bond servant to the perfectionist ideal that we sometimes have at Carolina. I had to be the perfect, hardworking Carolina student who did well in school but was also extremely fit and ate well and just had it all together.”

When doing it all — taking 16 credit hours, holding multiple leadership positions and dealing with the stress of preparing for the MCAT — took up her time and energy, Dodson had to sacrifice her time to go to the gym. 

“Naturally, I gained some weight,” Dodson said. “But then I began to feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar with my body and felt like a failure.”

These feelings led her to unhealthy thoughts about her body and unhealthy eating habits — habits that ultimately led her down the road to an eating disorder.  

Research shows that about 20 percent of students on a college campus will have an experience similar to Dodson’s, struggling with some form of disordered eating or negative thoughts about body image during their four years. 

“One out of five people are already walking around having tried to cut back on calories so that they can get drunk faster or skipping meals so that they can lose those last few pounds before they go on spring break,” said Stephanie Zerwas, associate professor and clinical director for the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders. “All that risky dieting behavior is a disordered way of interacting with the body.”  

Disordered eating is often a gateway to an eating disorder, Zerwas said. The two are different in that an individual must meet a certain threshold of regular, disruptive eating behavior in order to have an eating disorder. 

Melissa Munn-Chernoff, an assistant professor with the CEED, said behavior like Dodson’s is common — perfectionism, especially on a competitive campus like UNC’s, can exacerbate eating disorder symptoms, and individuals might look to regain control through exercise and going to the gym. 

And when this control falters, individuals can feel shame — like Dodson did. 

“Overall, I don’t think UNC’s fitness culture is a bad thing,” Dodson said. “But it becomes a problem when we let this good thing become our everything. The way Carolina students talk about fitness is often about getting ready for spring break or some sort of punishment for eating pizza on Friday night.”

Zerwas noted this type of thinking is dangerous. She said living a healthy lifestyle can include missing a day at the gym to study or eating something just because it tastes good. 

“It's not about depriving yourself and punishing yourself,” she said. "Think about it in the way of how would you treat a child or your pet? Would you push them to do the things you’re pushing yourself to do?”

This spring, Dodson is planning to run the Tar Heel 10 Miler. After seeking professional help and receiving support from family and friends, she has been in successful recovery from her eating disorder for about a year. 

“I can love and enjoy exercise and push my body without being concerned with the number of calories I burn, or the food I ate that day, or how my body changes in either direction,” she said. 

Gillian Fortier, a member of the executive board for Embody Carolina, an organization on UNC’s campus that serves as a peer-to-peer support resource for those struggling with eating disorders, said her organization looks to emphasize this outlook on fitness and healthy living — promoting exercise as something your body can give you. 

“I think fitness combined with mindfulness and self-care is actually a really beautiful and empowering thing,” Dodson said. “I hope in the future the language used on campus is encouraging of all people and all bodies to participate in exercise if they want to, without feeling the pressure to meet a mark on the scale or the ideal that they have created.” 

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