Groups promote body image awareness

In an effort to increase campus awareness of eating disorders and to counteract unhealthy attitudes, ESTEEM is hosting Celebrating Our Bodies Week.

It all began with a healthy eating campaign.

For sophomore Theresa Viglizzo, a preoccupation with counting calories led to a bout with anorexia and ultimately landed her in the hospital.

“Someone came to school and she mentioned counting calories,” she said. “I was definitely a perfectionist in high school, so when she started talking about it I was like, ‘Oh, maybe this is something I should try.’”

Viglizzo, who is currently a member of the Educating Students to Eliminate Eating Misconceptions group, better known as ESTEEM, began to cut back on calories after her swimming season ended. Her habit spiraled into a preoccupation that came to dominate her behavior. “It stopped being about losing weight, because I never thought I was overweight,” Viglizzo said. “Food became the one thing that I could control. To see the weight on the scale drop became this sort of high, and it was a sense of accomplishment every day.”

In an effort to increase campus awareness of eating disorders and to counteract unhealthy attitudes, ESTEEM is hosting Celebrating Our Bodies Week. Events have included a speech by actress Jamie Lynn DiScala, a presentation on the history of body image and a display in the Bryan Center depicting a Barbie Doll and a G.I. Joe blown up to life-size proportions. In Friday’s program, “Unheard Voices,” Duke students will share their personal struggles with eating disorders. Event organizers consider this event the week’s capstone experience.

“We’re trying to raise awareness of the fact that it does exist and it is okay to talk about it, but we’re also trying to help people decide how to talk to a friend,” said senior Alexis Strong, ESTEEM co-president. “We’re not only trying to get people to seek help but also to educate people on how to help others.”


Close to home

For Strong, a difficult transition to Duke led to a search for stability within a stressful environment. “I was always the girl that never thought it would be my problem,” she said. “I thought that it was an image thing, that it was about being thin—that it was about trying to be perfect.”

Strong soon found herself consumed by her growing preoccupation with dieting.

“It takes over your life—I lived my eating disorder. It robbed me of who I was and was quite possibly the most lonely feeling,” Strong said. “It affected all of my friends, my relationships and my experience with college; I pulled away from everybody.... Part of the reason that I joined ESTEEM is that I never wanted anyone to feel that they were alone.”

Three years ago, Dr. Terrill Bravender, assistant professor of pediatrics and medical director of the Duke Eating Disorder Program, and Dr. Betty Staples, a clinical associate in pediatrics, found eating disorders to be widely prevalent on campus.

“Duke students do have a significantly higher rate of disordered eating behaviors as compared to [The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill] students,” Bravender said. “[Duke women] are about 50 percent more likely to have disordered eating behaviors if you participated in a sorority.”

Duke Student Health Service officials have observed similar problems.

“We struggle probably more than some universities,” said Franca Alphin. As adviser for ESTEEM and interim director of health promotion for Student Health, Alphin is a registered dietician who has observed a significant amount of disordered eating among students. Avoiding social outings involving food, she said, was one example of such behavior.

Strong agreed. “When you say eating disorders, people think that you’re either anorexic or bulimic,” Strong said. “Its more of a continuum—there’s a lot of disordered eating in-between, and that’s where I think most students fall. Their conception of healthy eating is skewed.”

Senior Kristina Goff, co-president of ESTEEM, felt that at times, unhealthy attitudes towards food arose unintentionally. “A lot of students have disordered eating without meaning to,” she said. “I think if you get into the habit of certain behaviors is where you have the problem.”


A downward spiral

As Viglizzo’s disorder progressed, friends and family began to take notice. In a physical examination, doctors noticed that she had developed a weakened heart—a complication that can often result from anorexia. “You’re not getting enough fuel, so your body just starts to eat away at its muscles,” Viglizzo said.

For people with anorexia, dieting may become excessive—to the point of self-starvation. In addition to heart problems, anorexia can result in a weakened immune system, fatigue, dry skin, hair loss and kidney failure. Dr. Susan Spratt said even recovered anorexics can suffer the consequences of the disorder later in life; malnourishment can result in calcium deficiency, brittle bones and ultimately osteoporosis. Bulimia, which is characterized by binge eating and purging, also has its complications, including heart failure and inflammation of the esophagus.

While Viglizzo continued in outpatient treatment through her senior year, the disorder was difficult to overcome. “I would throw parts of my lunch away or down the toilet, and I had a time where I took laxatives to purge my body of the food I had eaten,” she said.

Friends were a significant part of the recovery process—both as a help and a hindrance. At the time, Viglizzo’s best friend was struggling with bulimia; other friends advised her to drink excessive amounts of water and duct-tape weights to herself while she was in outpatient therapy.

“I had friends that said, ‘Anything to get you through outpatient treatment, just do it,’” she said. “Ultimately, it was the people who didn’t just ignore the fact that it was happening who were being the best friends to me.”

Four years later, Viglizzo has not forgotten her struggles and said she believes disordered eating and exercise habits are a commonly overlooked problem on campus. “You go to the gym and see the girls who are there all of the time, and are they are unhealthily thin and just drinking Diet Coke,” she said.

These are the types of behaviors ESTEEM hopes to address.


Social pressures

Amy Brantley, a nutritionist at the Duke Eating Disorder Clinic, said while poor body image was often a primary cause, the factors that contribute to eating disorders are complex. Other triggers may include genetic factors, family history, social factors and interpersonal relationships.

“A lot could have to do with socialization... it just teaches us to compare ourselves related to appearance,” Brantley said. “As a whole, women have unrealistic expectations of what their bodies should look like.”

Freshman Meredith Breuer said she believed most women suffered from appearance-related insecurity. “Girls are always conscious about their body image,” she said. “I’m sure guys are, too, but every girl is in some way, even the ones that say they don’t care about what people think of them.”

With its proactive approach, ESTEEM has received significant praise for its efforts. While eating habits and body image remain problems on campus, optimism for the future still remains prevalent.

“We need to start talking, not just about the people who are severely disordered,” Strong said. “Its not going to be a mass movement. It has to be something that happens between friends or coming from trusted sources. We need to accept it as our responsibility to effect change on an interpersonal level.”


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