{Not Otherwise Specified}

The stress of college life has dire consequences for those with disordered eating.

by Shelbie Bostedt

photos by Michael Nowakowsi

EDNOS is not just restricting calories. EDNOS is not just purging after a large meal. EDNOS stands for “eating disorder not otherwise specified” and is more than the number of meals in a day or the number you see when you step on the scale.

For some, EDNOS is spending hours in the gym and refusing to eat bread. For others, EDNOS is purging in a dorm bathroom despite eating nothing that day. For me, EDNOS was the monster hiding under my dormroom bed throughout my freshman year, keeping me paralyzed in fear at the thought of losing control of the body I had worked so hard for.

I shuffled into the 1835 Hinman dining hall and scanned the nutritional information of each item - 540…710…460 - looking for something that would fit the calories I had left for dinner.

Perfect: 370. I grabbed the tiny plate of what the dining hall called Mediterranean Quinoa Salad and shuffled away unnoticed.

“Is that all you’re going to eat?” one of Hinman’s Sodexo employees called after me. “Here, let me get you some potatoes or chicken to go with that.”

I tell him that I’m going to come back once I finish this, but I know that’s a lie. I go to the salad bar and load a bowl full of vegetables – no dressing, of course – and quickly make my way to the dining hall.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from eating disorders at some point in their lives, and four out of 10 people report suffering from disordered eating or knowing someone who does.

High-stress situations like starting college increase the likelihood of disordered eating. Focusing on something that seems as trivial as the number of calories consumed in a day may help to alleviate the stress students feel about larger issues like homework or exams.

According to a 2007 report from the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, college students are more susceptible to mental health problems due to the stressors of campus life, including desired perfection or perceived incompetence.

I was nine years old when I had my first experience with disordered eating. My mom would make me a turkey sandwich for lunch and I would pick it apart, laying aside the bread and cheese, eating only the two thin slices of meat. I would silently applaud myself if I made it through the 30 minutes of lunch without touching anything else in my lunchbox and would dump the entire thing out before heading out to the playground, thinking nobody would notice.

Between the ages of nine and 17, my weight bounced up and down until I found myself unable to appreciate my body underneath the layers of fat I wished to escape from.

The summer before senior year of high school, I lost almost 50 pounds. I ate less than 500 calories a day, popping appetite suppressants like Tic-Tacs to keep myself in line and under budget. As I was getting ready for Northwestern, I would spend two hours at the gym each day, scrolling through the Class of 2016 Facebook group on my iPhone to waste time on the elliptical.

By the time I’m standing in the dining hall, I mastered the art of eating under a caloric budget. Fall Quarter is about to end and, as I’ve bragged to friends back home, instead of gaining the Freshman 15, I lost 10 pounds.

When I arrived on campus, I was pleased with how my body looked and what it could do after spending hours working out over the summer. I ate what I wanted during Wildcat Welcome: waffles topped with ice cream, French fries and bottomless cereal bowls, hanging out with new friends and acquaintances. I forgot what it was like to eat without restriction, and it was nice.

I would get back to my dormroom at night and do a quick mental count of everything I had consumed that day. I was surrounded by girls whom I perceived as prettier, smarter and, most importantly, thinner. I strived to make a good first impression while constantly distracted by the caloric number crunching in my head – and it was torturous. Once classes started, I told myself, I would get back on track and get back to the gym.

For Weinberg sophomore Isabel Sturla, disordered eating was a thing of the past when she arrived on campus in 2013. Sturla struggled with disordered eating throughout her freshman and sophomore years of high school, beginning as dieting and escalating into obsessive exercise and refusal to eat certain foods.

Though she has been recovered for nearly four years, Sturla’s experience with disordered eating helped her recognize possible triggers in the people she met on campus, after witnessing many of her peers criticize themselves and their eating habits.

“I would be eating double what they were eating. They would be eating a salad and saying, ‘I’m eating so much today. I really need to go to the gym and work out,’” Sturla says. “I thought, ‘Well, if I easily weigh so much more than them and they’re concerned, shouldn’t I be concerned?’ And I knew that was irrational, but that’s part of the disease.”

But instead of relapsing into disordered behavior, Sturla chose to remove herself from toxic environments and separate herself from body negativity.

“I don’t blame those girls,” Sturla says. “But I had been through such a low point and I knew it wasn’t worth it to do anything to myself again.”

Two weeks into school, I found that I no longer fit into my size two jeans, which I’d literally worked my ass off to wear. An overwhelming need to shed my skin came over me as I struggled to wriggle the jeans off of my too-wide waist, over my too-fat ass and down my too-large legs.

At this point, I had two choices: love my body enough to respect it and work toward a goal in a healthy way, or fall back to what I knew to be effective, if torturous. If I didn’t have time to work off the calories I ate, I told myself, I just wouldn’t eat.

During Fall Quarter of my freshman year, the only constant in my life was that ache in my belly begging to be satisfied with more than the measly amount of calories I allotted myself each day – and even that I could stifle by chugging enough water or turning in early.

“When people are feeling very overwhelmed by all of the change and trying to cope, the thing that is soothing to them and gives them that sense of control is to really focus on what they eat,” says Sherrie Delinsky, a clinical psychologist in Wellesley, Mass.

When she worked at a university eating disorders clinic program, Delinksy saw a common denominator in her patients: the added stress of the Freshman 15. In her study of freshman year weight gain and disordered eating, Delinsky found that in the anticipation of the dreaded Freshman 15, students would resort to drastic eating behaviors as preventative measures.

“While the phenomenon is totally overblown, the Freshman 15 can be avoided by being mindful and balanced in their eating,” Delinsky explains. “But a lot of the time, people are very extreme and their obsessions become more of a problem than the actual weight gain could potentially be.”

These obsessions dominated my life. I would walk to class every day with phone in hand, adding what I ate to MyFitnessPal, a calorie-tracking app that became my best friend and my antagonist. At the end of each day, I would submit my food diary to MFP and get the warning I was eating too few calories to sustain myself. Meant as a caution against undereating, these warnings motivated me.

As the weeks flew by during Fall Quarter, my weight became my obsession and my motivator. If I read through these three chapters, I’ll forget how hungry I am. If I eat this box of raisins to keep myself awake in “Introduction to Islam,” I won’t need to eat lunch. While my grades in class were determined by how much a TA liked my paper or how well I had understood the reading, my weight was a direct reflection of my hard work.

I was so engulfed in my own battle to keep pushing my body’s boundaries that I neglected to notice my hallmate and close friend’s similar struggle. Having suffered and recovered from disordered eating in the past, she began to wither away before the entire hall’s eyes, lauded in compliments for her weight loss, which served only to add fuel to the fire feeding her relapse. I watched as she ate nothing but a few raspberries, refused to go to the dining hall with us and retched in the shared stalls minutes later.

According to Eating Disorders Review, a professional journal about eating disorder treatment, life transitions have the propensity to provoke eating disorders in patients of all ages and any diagnoses.

“We hear a lot about anorexia and bulimia with images attached of emaciated young women,” says Claire Mysko of the National Eating Disorders Association. “But people who struggle from disordered eating come in all shapes and sizes, all genders, ages and ethnicities. Eating disorders don’t discriminate.”

I saw the dangers of my friend’s eating habits, but thought nothing of mine. “Well, I’m not purging,” I told myself when I started to doubt whether I had, in my vast misunderstanding of the topic, a legitimate eating disorder. I’m still eating, I assured myself. Just not as much as before. This isn’t an eating disorder; it’s just a diet. I could stop whenever I wanted to.

“One of the biggest misconceptions of eating disorders is that they are always accompanied by very extreme behaviors of what people think eating disorders are supposed to look like,” Mysko says. “People think what they’re doing isn’t serious enough to seek help.”

This was the category I found myself in: serious enough to notice my eating disorder, but not enough to raise the alarm. I saw my friend sucked deeper and deeper into her eating disorder. I saw her go on leave for medical and psychiatric attention. At that point, I couldn’t deny that what I was doing was just as damaging – if not to my body, to my mind.

While SESP junior Eric Morales has not struggled with disordered eating, body image issues have plagued him for years. They started in the sixth grade when he initially noticed his weight gain following a trip to France. But when he came home, Morales became increasingly aware of the differences between his body and the bodies of those around him.

“I was never overweight. I was never obese,” Morales says. “I was just surrounded by people hitting puberty earlier and faster than me. It was definitely throughout that time that I developed a very negative image of myself.”

The pressure of not looking like those around him negatively impacted Morales’ self-esteem, manifesting not only in how he viewed himself, but also in how he interacted with others.

Morales hoped for a fresh start when he got to Northwestern, and while he was able to ignore these issues at the beginning of his freshman year, they resurfaced after he was bullied by a hallmate.

“It was the first defining moment of ‘Crap, someone can see this besides me,’” Morales remembers. “I guess it just sort of started to catch up. I was so stressed out with classes, work, midterms, research, and when you come home and take your shirt off at night to go to sleep, you just say, ‘Well, ain’t that the cherry on top of the cake.’”

It’s hard to shake these feelings. My crippling body image and obsessive dieting continued into my sophomore year. I was eating too little, stressing a lot and working out too much for my body to handle with the miniscule amount of fuel I would give it.

This downward spiral continued until Winter Quarter. I was living on my own and too distracted by classes and work and activities, all staples in any Northwestern student’s day-to-day life, to neurotically track my intake. Eating like a “normal person” gave me energy and strength that I lacked when I refused to let my calories top 800.

I liked the energy, but hated my body and the jeans that couldn’t be pulled over my ass. So instead of throwing myself on the ground and crying about how fat I had become, I tossed the jeans.

Sophomore year Shelbie had shit to get done and couldn’t afford to waste time crying in bed over going up a pant size. That was not going to ruin my year.

As I shoved my too-tight jeans under my bed, I stood at the same crossroads I had encountered a year earlier – but I was not the same person.

I was worth more than 400 calories a day, more than a diet, more than a disorder. With 1,001 other responsibilities on my metaphorical plate, stressing about the calories that crossed my actual plate was not going to become one of them.

I decided to put all of my newfound and pent up energy to use. I slapped on some sneakers and hit the asphalt.

As the burning summer sun cut through the cool spring air, I traded in hunger pangs for sore calves and burning lungs; I slashed through mile goals rather than caloric ones. I held myself accountable to my body’s needs by registering for a half-marathon with the support of my friends and family, knowing that running was simply impossible without the right fuel.

I count each time my foot slaps the pavement, staying aware of the forward motion of my body, not from the fire in my lungs and the echo of my heartbeat in my head, but the number of steps I’m taking.

My legs may shake and my breath may catch, but I push through the pain because in these moments, I am amazed at what my body can do. It’s in those steps that I realize loving my body for what it is will get me further than hating it for what it is not, and while recovery may not lie in a mile goal or a number on the scale, it is on the horizon and I’m headed toward it.