‘Seeing myself gain weight scared me’: living with an eating disorder at Queen’s

For women of university age, the risk of both developing and dying from an ED is amplified

Three students speak to their experiences coping with an ED on campus. 

This article discusses eating disorders and may be triggering for some readers. The Canadian Mental Health Association Crisis Line can be reached at 1-800-875-6213.

“I started dieting and working out after gaining 40 pounds from depression,” Angela Tran, ArtSci ’22, said. “At my all-time low I weighed about 110 pounds. I’m 5’3.”

“Seeing myself gain weight scared me, even if it was by five pounds. I started to become stricter with my diet, exercis[ing] more frequently. Some days I would go to the gym twice.”

Tran’s experiences are unique, but not rare; eating disorders (EDs) in young women are alarmingly prevalent, and research on this continues to grow.

One million Canadians are currently diagnosed with some type of ED, which have the highest overall mortality rate of any mental illness, being estimated between 10 and 15 per cent. For women of university age, the risk of both developing and dying from an ED is amplified.

A 2014 report on the status of women and girls in Canada found that the onset for anorexia nervosa peaks between the ages of 19 and 20, with the peaks for bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder also occurring in the same range.

While campuses across the country are becoming increasingly likely to improve support resources for students coping with depression or anxiety, students diagnosed with EDs are unlikely to be able to have those disorders treated on campus.

According to Rina Gupta, director of Counselling Services at Student Wellness Services (SWS), six per cent of all counselling sessions during the 2019-20 academic year addressed EDs, with the ED specialist alone offering over 450 sessions.

Developing an ED

Sarah,* ArtSci ’23, had always contemplated whether she had an ED after developing unhealthy eating habits throughout high school, which included starving herself for long periods of time.

“I didn’t feel as if I was ‘sick enough’ since I wasn’t extremely underweight. I definitely swept it under the rug […] I was not properly educated on eating disorders.”

Sarah began researching EDs online after sensing a tipping point when she almost fainted from hunger.

Meanwhile, Tran’s body dysmorphia stemmed from many separate factors, but she ultimately felt her ED was triggered by an internal belief that being skinny is beautiful.

“I was fat-shamed throughout my childhood, despite the fact that I was objectively at healthy weight.”

Tran was unaware of the complexities of EDs outside of anorexia or bulimia, but later realized she’d developed a different type of eating disorder.

“I would feel like I had an uncontrollable appetite and feel guilty after a binge. I would compensate one night of overeating with two hours of exercise the next day, followed by a fast.”

Leah,* ArtSci ’20, was around eight or nine when she first became hyperaware of her appearance.

“I had cleared my plate [after dinner] and my mother made a comment about how my legs were so thin and compared them to chicken legs. […] This was the first time I truly remember I became clearly critical of my physical appearance and I believe the start of my obsession with food and body image,” she said.

“My mom still to this day makes comments about her weight, as well as the appearance of my family members […] I can’t fully blame her. Our society attaches women’s bodies and appearances to trends and to market off our manufactured insecurities to sell more products.”

Living with an ED at Queens

All three students interviewed developed symptoms of their EDs early in life, with those symptoms returning—and sometimes worsening—during their time at Queen’s.

“I had struggled with disordered eating for years prior to being thrown into an environment where the messaging is ‘careful what you eat in Lenny, don’t want to get that freshman 15,’” Leah said.

“I spent a good portion of my first year just eating soup in fear of others judging my meals, how much I ate, and god forbid of gaining any weight.”

Eating disorders can be triggered by a variety of interpersonal and social factors. For university-aged women, that can include ideologies embedded within Queen’s culture. The image of the average Queen’s student is that of a thin, white, and able-bodied person, which can initiate serious body image issues.

Tran recalled instances where her friends would “document what they ate to each other to hold each other accountable and stay on track with their ‘fitness journey.’”

“Seeing them encourage each other, I wanted to try to return to my lowest weight,” she said.

For Sarah, alternatively, being in residence “was one of the best things that happened for her ED.”

“My best friend and I went to dinner with our floor on the first night of residence, and I remember looking at everyone happily eating together with their friends and thinking ‘Why can’t I be like them?’ That was the point I realized I had to make a change.”

Sarah isn’t alone in using eating with others as a method of coping with an ED. While research on the subject isn’t overwhelmingly substantive, some studies indicate that frequently partaking in family-style meals can help prevent the development of EDs.

At the end of Leah’s first year, she started to gain confidence and make more space for her body.

“I saw a doctor about my anxiety and depression and that helped curb a lot of my disordered behaviours and mind patterns […] I don’t think you can ever truly recover. You can get help and live a healthier life, but these thoughts become so subconscious and can so easily be triggered in an environment where your body is always the topic of conversation.”

Finding Support

When she decided to seek out help, Tran had never accessed any resources at Queen’s and was unaware any were available.

Leah has avoided such resources since she hasn’t had great experiences with counsellors at SWS when seeking help with other personal issues.

“I understand they’re trying their best and there aren’t enough doctors for the level of requests, but I haven’t clicked with their doctors and really didn’t find the environment productive for myself personally. That’s not to say others won’t find it a useful resource. I have plenty of friends who have had good experiences.”

However, Leah referred to the comfort she found through online healing communities.

“I’ve done a lot of research on coping mechanisms and strategies. It’s been helpful to journal on my thoughts and take time to reflect […] The act of acknowledging and then dismissing [intrusive thoughts] has been helpful. There are a lot of good resources online and if you’re not ready to see a doctor, I think this a good first step.”

Sarah also hadn’t attempted to access any Queen’s resources to cope with her ED.

Students coping with an ED can currently access resources through SWS. Crisis resources include the Empower Me and Good2Talk hotlines, and limited counselling is available to students through a short-term mental health model of care.

Gupta said SWS has a clinical social worker specializing in treating eating disorders.  

“When she connects with a student, she organizes for them to be followed by a SWS physician and, if needed, arranges for nurse appointments to measure weight and vitals. Students can also choose to see a physician, without counselling, who can follow them medically.”

In cases where SWS is unable to provide the best treatment, students are referred by a physician to the ED clinic at Hotel Dieu Hospital.

Moving Forward

While she recognized the damage social media can do by sometimes glorifying destructive behaviour that can lead to eating disorders, Sarah said she found great resources from body positivity and ED awareness accounts.

“Hearing advice and the advantages of recovery from people who have been through what I went [and] am going through is very helpful. It reinforces the fact that I’m not alone and can get my life back to where it was before I developed my ED.”

Sarah’s advice to other students coping with an ED would be to speak to someone they trust about their experiences—connecting with her best friend has been a tremendous help to her, she said. She also recommended that those who suspect a loved one may be developing an ED should start a dialogue.

Tran agreed, adding that “[the] majority of the time, people with an ED know they have an eating disorder and are open to talking about it if you approach them with an open mind.”

Tran’s path to recovery was kickstarted by the pandemic, which left her unable to go to the gym and resulted in her spending more time with her boyfriend, who would cook her meals.

“I still exercise, but every time I do so, I enter with the intention of clearing the mind, and not focusing on trying to burn as many calories as I can within an hour.”

Leah added that, to be a supportive friend, it’s important not to “immediately try to help them problem solve; you could risk shutting them out. Listen and be there for them.”

She was also concerned about the greater issue of body positivity movements created by corporations to sell more beauty products.

“[B]ody positivity doesn’t work when companies can profit off negative self-image or play to this social movement for profit. Our only hope is to move towards body neutrality.”

She finally added that students should avoid making gendered assumptions about EDs.

“It’s a common misconception that men especially do not struggle, for lack of a better term, with EDs. I think this is highly rooted in toxic masculinity and does no good for men seeking help or feeling comfortable confiding in their friends if they need support.”

*Name changed for anonymity due to safety reasons.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.