College is the best four years of your life. College is where you meet your best friends. College is progressive. But college is also competitive. College is judgmental. College is where you’re never quite smart enough, pretty enough, or skinny enough.
The Multi-Service Eating Disorder Association cites that 40% of college women have an eating disorder. Forty women in your Bio 101 lecture suffer from an eating disorder. Forty women in your sorority suffer from an eating disorder. Four of your best friends suffer from an eating disorder.Teresa Ceballos, a senior English major at UNC Chapel Hill, has been in recovery from her eating disorder since the summer of 2015.
“An eating disorder will tell you every moment of every day that you are not a human being worthy of love,” she said, “or even of being alive, quite frankly. It will tell you that you do not deserve friendship, family, or any sense of belonging unless you comply with whatever kind of unhealthy eating or exercising patterns that your eating disorder demands. Even when you do comply, you still will not be enough.”
Growing up, Teresa was energetic and sporty. She ran cross-country and viewed exercise as play. However, the university environment was toxic for her outlook on food and exercise.
The transition to college brings many new forms of autonomy. However, that autonomy can be overwhelming. Despite Teresa's newfound independence, she felt out of control. In her new environment, she didn't find a sense of belonging. She found loneliness and helplessness. In order to compensate for her lack of control, Teresa began restricting her diet and exercising compulsively.
During the second semester of her sophomore year, she isolated herself. She refused to eat any foods that were not pre-planned, and she spent hours daily checking nutrition facts on dining hall meals. Teresa didn't understand her new behaviors, and she didn't know how to stop them.
Many factors can contribute to the development of an eating disorder, and the college atmosphere can have a major impact.
“In the dining hall, I heard people talking about good and bad food all the time,” she said. “I saw people point at the desserts and call them bad food then people point at the salad bar and call that good food.”
“What assigning moral values of 'good and bad' to food does is create an underlying sense of guilt with what is normatively identified as bad food,” Teresa explained. “If you have feelings of guilt associated with certain foods, then those feelings of guilt can become very internalized. What happened to me was that if I ate a food that I thought was 'bad,' then I thought that I was a bad person.”
Luckily, her close friends noticed the symptoms of an eating disorder and confronted her about it. Teresa then committed herself to finding a therapist who could help her, though it took multiple tries, and committed herself to self-care.
Although college can be a breeding ground for mental illnesses, it also provides a support system for those in need. Recovery is a trying process, but groups like Embody Carolina work to end the stigma and increase awareness of eating disorders on campus.
Recovery is hard. Teresa said it's one of the hardest things she has ever attempted, but investing in yourself and your future is imperative.
“Recovery has been the most worthwhile endeavor of my life thus far because I can finally see the good in myself, which allows me to see the immense good in other people. It allows me to feel that I deserve to be a student at UNC, and that I deserve to have friends and family that care about me and love me. It has allowed me to share the story of my journey in hopes of paying it forward for the people who loved someone who had convinced herself, less than a year ago, that she was utterly and indefinitely unlovable.”
On October 18th 2016, Embody Carolina hosted “Smash Talk.” Teresa was one of three panelists to speak at the event about her eating disorder.
“We’ve all had very different experiences of eating disorders and recovery,” she said. “Being able to share our stories together allowed me and the other people in the room to see that no two eating disorders and no two recoveries are going to look the same, but we can still give one another the compassionate and open-minded support that may be necessary for recovery.”
Teresa noted the flaws in the university’s perspective on eating disorders. She bemoaned the common misconception that the severity of an eating disorder can be determined by a person’s appearance.
“The most damaging aspect of an eating disorder in most cases,” she explained, “is how it makes you feel about yourself and the world around you.”
Fortunately, a lot of effort is going into eating disorder awareness and education.
“So many people at UNC have opened their hearts and ears to me and listened to what my experience has been like," she said, "but I cannot speak to the personal struggles of so many other people on this campus who also deserve to be heard."
Teresa has experienced the part of college life that lead to disordered eating, and she has experienced the part that brought about a healthy relationship with food. As an eating disorder survivor, she has a call-to-action for all college students:
“I ask the students at UNC to consider their bodies and value their bodies—not for what they look like, but for what they do for you—for how your body carries you through the day and serves you as a perfectly imperfect mechanism for life.
I ask you to eat the food that you know and have learned will fuel this mechanism and that will make you feel good, and that you don’t need a special occasion or a tough day to treat yourself, because you deserve the food that you want to eat simply by being human. Finally, know that the food that you put into your body and the exercise that you do—or don’t do—does not make you even remotely any more or less deserving of the companionship, friendship, and love that all humans deserve."
If you or a friend needs help for an eating disorder, go here to get help.