Margaret Eby
September 16, 2014 12:50 pm

When Kate Leddy first arrived as a student at the University of Massachusetts, she was excited and optimistic. But the school’s emphasis on health—providing calorie counts on each dish at the dining hall, advertising exercise and healthy-living classes, reminding students of the importance of being active—backfired for Leddy. Instead of gently reminding her about the need for vegetables, the pro-health messages fueled Leddy’s long-term struggle with anorexia nervosa.

In a moving essay about her battle with the eating disorder for The Daily Collegian, Leddy described the imbalance between the emphasis on physical health and the emphasis on mental health.

“In the first few weeks of college, I saw no hint of information about the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health on campus. Not a single teacher, student or administration member addressed the potential mental strain incoming freshmen especially may be having when moving to a new place,” she wrote.

“Instead, the monster inside of me that I had once been so fervently trying to fight leered at the stickers on every vending machine that read ‘Calories count: think before you choose,’ and I found no barrier to stop myself from slipping backwards into its grip with each trip to the Rec Center and each lap around the buffet circle at Hamp [the school’s cafeteria] wondering what combination of calories from those little cards I could possibly allow myself to eat or whether I should just send my spotless plate to the dish return and walk out.”

Leddy eventually sought out the counseling office, but found the help she needed less accessible than the pervasive messages about watching her waistline. “If the topic had been as socially acceptable to talk about and as prominently displayed as the fitness-promoting and calorie-count signs around campus, then I would have been able to see I was not alone and that recovery was still worth it long before I began speaking about my struggle at the end of my first semester,” she wrote. “For now, though, maybe that is our biggest weapon against eating disorders: speaking about it.”

She’s absolutely right. Eating disorders are diseases that disproportionately effect young women, and the pressures of making a new life at college can trigger episodes for students who, like Leddy, had experience with the disease before. Although healthy-eating initiatives can be valuable for many students, it’s important for schools to remember that not all students have the same issues with their diet. It’s a tricky topic with no clear-cut solution. But Leddy’s decision to speak up is the first step in providing help for those in need, and raising awareness about issues that may need more attention than they’re getting.

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