At Fairfield University, 10 percent of students who went to Counseling & Psychological Services for at least one meeting reported eating-related concerns at their first meeting this year, according to Sarah Gersick, Ph.D, a Clinical Psychologist at Counseling & Psychological Services. Fifteen percent of students who completed an intake assessment reported body dysmorphia and 29 percent reported weight or appetite changes as a concern this year. Fourteen students were overseen by the Eating Disorder Treatment Team, according to Counseling & Psychological Services.

The “Eat Like You Love You” panel discussion that took place on Tuesday, March 21 in the Lower Level of the Barone Campus Center focused on many health related subjects, from tips on how to love your body to symptoms of eating disorders. The event was sponsored by Counseling & Psychological Services, the Student Health Center, the Collegiate Health Corps and Sodexo.

There were five female panelists present to talk about body positivity, nutrition and mental health: Jane Conway, licensed clinical social worker, registered dietitian/certified dietitian & nutritionist, psychotherapist and nutrition counselor; Mackenzie Gordon, masters of science, registered dietitian nutritionist, licensed dietitian/nutritionist, registered nutritionist and licensed dietitian; Dr. Mirjana Domakonda, psychiatrist and eating disorder specialist, and two Fairfield University students, Jennifer Schwartz ‘18 and Sarah Foley ‘18 who have both struggled with anorexia. The panel was hosted by Gersick.

Conway spoke first, emphasizing the importance of having a positive body image. She explained that one way to achieve this is to “start the day with a positive affirmation and end the day with a positive affirmation.” She also encouraged focusing on positive attributes about yourself; one way to do this, Conway explained, is to “have ten things that you know you’re good at.” Surrounding yourself with positive people, she said, is also key, as well as looking at yourself in the mirror as a whole person and not just focusing on the parts of yourself that you don’t like. Another piece of advice that Conway provided was to “notice things about other people other than just the way they look.”

An app that Conway and Domakonda both recommended students download is called “Calm.” This app allows you to meditate for as little as three minutes or as long as you’d like. Conway explained that this app can help to shift your mind from focusing on negative aspects of yourself and “get out of your head and promote a more peaceful self.”

Gordon spoke next, explaining that she works to “promote healthy eating and balanced lifestyles on campus.” She told the audience that she works with Sodexo to create “Mindful Mondays” and “Wellness Wednesdays” that can help students be more aware of how and what they eat, especially in the dining hall. The dining hall tries to promote healthy eating by doing a new “fruit of the week” every week, for example, and Gordon spends at least one day a week in the dining hall offering healthy and unique food choices to anyone who’s interested. Gordon explained that, when eating in the dining hall, you can look for an apple shaped emblem next to certain foods that indicates that the dish is “mindful.” She cautioned students to stay away from “dashboard dining,” which is when you eat while studying or scrolling through social media. When we focus on what we’re eating, “it helps our stomach and our brain communicate with each other, so they’re able to tell you when it’s time to stop eating or grab something else.”

Social media was a hot topic at the panel discussion. Conway warned that “all advertising agencies most likely photoshop their photos,” yet we see these photos and feel a “need to be perfect.” However, Conway explained that “that is not reality,” and advised students to “monitor how much you’re on social media and if, in fact, it makes you feel good or not good.” Domakonda pointed out that there are some accounts that do promote body positivity and post inspiring messages. She encouraged students to follow some of these accounts so that they are on their feed, so that when they’re on social media, they are seeing positive images.

Both student panelists discussed their personal experiences with an eating disorder. Schwartz was diagnosed with anorexia in ninth grade, but she developed anorexic tendencies in seventh grade. Specifically, she struggled with exercise compulsions and body dysmorphia. She described being very unwilling to undergo treatment for a long time and convinced everyone around her that she was fine, but that over the summer going into tenth grade, she finally began treatment after a stern doctor and the love from her family convinced her to do so. She explained that she still struggles with her symptoms everyday, describing them as a “full-time job,” but that she “doesn’t let this disease run me.” She finished her speech by giving some advice to anyone who may be struggling: be honest with yourself if you have a problem so you can break the cycle, and she offered her assistance to anyone who needs it.

Domakonda shared that “fifty percent of adolescents actually engage in some type of unhealthy dining behavior.” She explained an experience that she had at a conference where, during lunch, all of the people present were told not to discuss anything food or diet related while they ate and she was surprised by how difficult this really was. She followed with, “it’s fascinating, how much of lives are focused on this talk about food and diet that is unhealthy and unnecessary, and that can lead to these disordered eating habits that I see in my practice.”

Domakonda also discussed the differences between normal interactions with food and exercise and ones that are symptoms of a disorder. Obsessing over food and/or exercise, feeling extreme guilt or anxiety when you’ve eaten something that you consider “bad” and/or haven’t exercised and seeing unhealthy foods as “evil” are all examples that she gave of warning signs of an eating disorder. She advised that if you’re planning to start a diet or change your eating habits, you should do so with a buddy so that you can “keep each other in check.”

Foley was diagnosed with anorexia last year and has since been to treatment. She explained that she has struggled with body dysmorphia since she was very young and would “nitpick every little inch of my body.” After being diagnosed with depression and anxiety, she started therapy and medication which caused her to gain about fifty pounds. She responded to this by starting a very strict diet of only 1200 calories a day, even though the recommended amount for a woman of her height is 2000 and she was exercising about five times a week. She “developed a fear of putting the weight back on.” In treatment, she was taught to stop putting value judgements on foods and to stop judging herself based on what she ate. She is now in recovery, yet she explained that she also still struggles everyday with her disease. She also offered her knowledge and help to anyone struggling.

Many students attended the “Eat Like You Love You” panel.

Freshman Mary Eble said, “It was good to see two students being so open about their experience with anorexia. We need more people talking about important issues like this.”

Freshman Kiley Deignan said, “The professionals gave a lot of good tips on how to love yourself that I’ll definitely be implementing from now on. I think it’s sad that so many people are so hard on their bodies.” She added, “I also downloaded the ‘Calm’ app, so I’m looking forward to trying that out.”
Gersick would like the students of Fairfield University to be aware that help is always available at Counseling & Psychological Services. Any student who is concerned that he or she might have an eating disorder, or who struggles with food and body image, is encouraged to seek support free of charge. She also wants students to know in early April, Counseling & Psychological Services will be printing body-positive messages on cling films and placing them on bathroom mirrors all over campus to encourage students to be proud of the bodies they have. A sample message that students may see is, “Change the way you see, not the way you look,” and there are four messages in all. They are meant to “suggest positive and accepting ways to think about how you look, and reject societal pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards.”

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