The death of track runner Alex DeVinny from anorexia last March brought media attention to eating disorders in athletes, and how strenuous exercise can disguise problems with eating and compulsive exercising. This, in addition to the dynamics of any group on campus, from sports team to sorority, can contribute to the association of colleges with eating disorders.
“A lot of people feel that to fit into certain groups on campus, they have to look or dress a certain way,” an EARS counselor said. “There are image concerns for every group.”
“College is a time where you think about your identity — from what you’ll do after Cornell to what clubs you’ll join,” said Alice Green, assistant dean for student support and advisor for EARS. “And, with identity, goes what you look like.” According to the president of a sorority on campus, eating disorders are associated with sororities because of prevailing stereotypes: People assume that one reason women join a sorority is for an image. This suggests to some that sorority members are image-conscious. From there, it’s not hard to make the connection to eating disorders, some of which are caused by an obsession to emulate a certain image.
“I believe that if a group of friends has someone who is acutely self-conscious, and thus compares herself on a physical level to her friends, this type of person may be more likely to have body image issues, and may compete to be ‘the thinnest’ or the ‘prettiest’ of the group possibly forming an eating disorder to ‘win,’“ the sorority president said.
But this can happen within any group, from a residence hall to an apartment — “we’ve seen people from sororities, residence halls, and sports teams about eating disorders,” Green said.
The sorority had a presentation from Gannett on eating disorders recently and the president reported only positive results.
“It was beneficial to have a presentation from Gannett on eating disorders,” the president said.
The president of another sorority said that her sorority also has had Gannett come and give presentations on other health issues, but that she is cautious about having a presentation on eating disorders because “she doesn’t want any girl to feel like they’re having Gannett come because of her.”
This sorority said that while they may not have problems with eating disorders, they may have problems with compulsive exercise, in the sense that sorority members may exercise too much and not eat enough to make up for calories lost.
According to this sorority president, sororities can help people who have eating disorders. The members of the house can act as a strong support base for someone with eating disorders – the sisters who know her well can see what she’s eating and how much she’s exercising. She added that the national headquarters of her sorority has extensive resources on eating disorders that the Cornell chapter could use, if necessary.
“Men, at least straight men, are not as affected by eating disorders as women,” said Prof. David Levitsky, nutrition. In fact, there’s a ten-to-one occurrence of eating disorders between females and males, said Julia Popenoe, a physician at Gannett.
Levitsky added the caveat that men involved in particular sports where weight is important, such as wrestling, sprint football, and gymnastics, have more of a tendency to develop eating disorders.
Wrestling has long been associated with unhealthy weight loss practices. In the past, weigh-ins — when wrestlers get on the scale and determine at what weight they’ll wrestle — were completed one day before the match. Wrestlers would try to get down to the lowest weight possible — “cut weight” — without losing muscle. Some wrestlers would dehydrate themselves by going in saunas and wearing vinyl suits while working out to try to lose water weight, knowing that they had one full day to re-hydrate themselves and re-gain energy for the match. According to Boys Varsity Wrestling Coach Robert Koll, it’s possible to lose over 10 pounds of water weight.
But, now weigh-ins occur one hour before the match. And, the National Collegiate Wrestling Association, as well as the NCAA, has banned saunas and vinyl suits. If players de-hydrated themselves to the same extent as they did before, they would not be in peak shape for competition.
According to Koll these new rules have reduced potentially dangerous weight loss behavior.
“We don’t cut a lot of weight at Cornell,” Koll said. “Wrestling is a model for good nutrition and exercise, and it’s a life sport because it teaches kids good health.”
“I had a hard time maintaining my weight last year — I wasn’t eating right or staying hydrated, but I got on a schedule,” said Troy Nickerson ’09, a member of Cornell’s varsity wrestling team. “Staying healthy is important for being the most competitive.”
According to Nickerson, being vigilant about weight comes with advantages and disadvantages. Nickerson said that he’s in the best shape of his life right now, but misses out on sometimes not going out Saturday nights or eating ice cream and fast food with friends.
That mindset is “sometimes annoying,” according to Nickerson, but is helping him stay in the best possible shape for wrestling.
“Former wrestlers have told me that after restrictively dieting to lose weight for a sport, their appetite may never get back to normal. They say that they’ll get hungry for no good reason because they’ve lost touch with what’s right for them,” said Myra Berkowitz, a nutritionist at Gannett and member of the Cornell Healthy Eating Program.
Girls varsity track and cross country Coach Lou Duesing explained that he has a knee-jerk reaction to people who see track culture as a feeding ground for anorexia or bulimia because both disorders are very complex and personal in nature.
“It’s not like walking through the door of a track locker room turns someone into an anorexic or bulimic,” Duesing said.
Duesing said that, there have been team members who have had eating disorders, and also said that “it is not the case that something about track causes eating disorders.”
“As a college coach, you inherit problems team members may have a disposition for or have already developed in high school,” Duesing said.
Sarah Herksee, assistant athletic trainer for girls cross country and track, wrote in a statement that she believes that disordered eating is more prevalent in athletes as opposed to eating disorders. She explained that disordered eating can lead to semi-starvation and dehydration, and other complications the decrease performance and impair health.
Gymnastics has also been associated with eating disorders, but according to gymnastics assistant coach Melanie Dilliplane, the problem is one of the past, when the ideal gymnastic body was small and thin, and Olympians “were 10-14 years old, had not yet hit puberty, and were very thin.”
“If you were a little kid and you were looking for inspiration, that’s who you saw,” Dilliplane said.
She says that Olympians now look much stronger and healthier.
Dilliplane said that weight is not an issue at Cornell gymnastics: “We don’t weight any girls on the team, there’s no point in making weight an issue.”
She also said that there may be pressure to stay thin for aesthetic reasons – gymnasts do wear form-fitting leotards and have to perform before a crowd.
“We have had problems with exercise compulsion,” Dilliplane said. “Because gymnastics is an anaerobic sport — gymnasts will work for a high-intensity for only one to one-and-a-half minutes — some team members would go to the gym excessively for aerobic activity.”
She noted that exercise can become a compulsion for anyone.