Finding Support For Eating Disorders in College and Greek Life

by | Mar 10, 2023

How Sororities Can Help Change the Conversation around Eating Disorders in College

College can be one of the most exciting times in a young person’s life. But for some, the big changes and new pressures can put these students at risk of developing disordered eating habits. And while eating disorders affect both men and women, studies reveal that nearly 90% of women on college campuses have tried to lose weight.
And while “dieting” might not sound like a big deal, eating disorders are the deadliest mental disorder in the US and affect as many as 1 in 4 college women.
Sororities have cemented themselves as an American symbol of sisterhood and friendship that many young adult women hope to attain. Sorority life offers close camaraderie, promises new opportunities, and can play a huge role in the college experience. But Greek life can have a dark side, too.

What causes eating disorders in college?

Choosing to join a sorority can increase your risk factors for an eating disorder. Even more, the sorority you select can impact the trajectory of your relationship with food for the rest of your life. So how can sororities provide support for members with eating disorders? It’s important to be able to recognize the risk factors for eating disorders in college students and take responsibility for how our conversation around dieting might trigger disordered eating habits.

Stress, anxiety, and depression

Many eating disorders coexist with other mental disorders, such as anxiety or depression. Add in the newfound independence of college life and the pressures that come with it, and we have a recipe for a pretty unbalanced diet. The stress of maintaining good academic standing can result in disordered eating habits like skipping meals and binge eating.

The loss of control or the need to control

It’s normal to feel a loss of control in a new environment – say, a college dorm. It’s normal to feel a need to control as a response to previous trauma. But when these feelings manifest as disordered eating habits, this need for control can be detrimental to a person’s long-term physical health. In an attempt to regain control of their life, a person with these coping mechanisms may resort to extreme calorie restriction or over-exercising, also known as orthorexia.
Sorority life can bring added challenges, with pressures to look or behave a certain way. For example, one ED recovery speaker talks about the constant “discussion about food and body size that occurs when groups of women get together” and attributes it to her own formative experience at a sorority rush week.

Genetics, personality

Family history and even personal experiences can have a say when it comes to who is at risk of developing an eating disorder in college. Some studies suggest that a genetic abnormality can cause some individuals to be predisposed to developing eating disorders like anorexia. Those with a close friend or loved one with anorexia are 12 times more likely to develop anorexia. Even personality traits like hypersensitivity, impulsivity, and obsessiveness can put a college student at risk of developing an eating disorder.

Poor body image

Low-self esteem and poor body image can make college students especially vulnerable to developing disordered eating habits. Even with the rise of the body positivity movement, today’s beauty standard is still inherently “fatphobic.” Photoshop and Facetune, plastic surgery, social media trends, pop culture, and fashion standards can all harm a college student’s perception of a healthy body.

Diet culture

Diet culture is one of the main triggers for disordered eating. Even with an innocent comment like “I’m being bad today!” as you snag a pastry at the coffee shop, your language is reinforcing the label of “bad” for certain foods and contributing to the diet culture. If everyone works to change the way we frame a “healthy diet,” we can help sororities to reframe the conversation to support those at risk of developing an eating disorder in college.

How can sororities support their sisters with eating disorders?

The cues and conversations around body image and dieting can be even more intense in social environments on Sorority row. While Greek life can certainly complicate the conversation around eating disorders, peer pressure, and beauty standards, the dynamic of sorority relationships offers new opportunities for women to support each other in recovering from disordered eating habits.

Recognize alcohol abuse

While many have their first experience with alcohol long before college, college life offers students their first opportunity to prioritize drinking– or rather, drinking over eating– as a lifestyle choice. For some college students, the newfound independence coupled with a lack of funds results in a liquid diet. It’s not uncommon for girls in sororities to “drink their calories” in an effort to stay thin and still party.
Called “drunkorexia” by some, the casual term highlights the importance of recognizing alcohol abuse in college students. Sororities can support their sisters with eating disorders by investing in education programs about alcohol abuse and the dangers of eating disorders. By cultivating a safe space for college students to deconstruct the lasting implications of disordered eating habits and binge drinking, sororities can begin to transition from the concept of health as a “One size fits all” approach to a more realistic plan of action, like curbing blackouts by providing brunch.

Discourage dieting and weekend binging

Sororities can support their sisters with eating disorders by maintaining a neutral physical space, too. To discourage calorie counting, cover food labels. Don’t be the friend that points out that a few tortilla chips equal a full tortilla! Employing restrictive diets and calorie deficits can have the complete opposite effect and result in a weekend binge.
It’s important for sorority leaders and members to maintain clear boundaries and consistent standards about dieting and binge eating. Instead of using a big breakfast as a reason not to eat dinner, sorority leaders can use this opportunity to reframe those extra calories as much-needed nutrients. More food means more fuel, which only brings you closer to reaching your mental and physical goals. Talk to your sorority sisters about the importance of intuitive eating and healing your body with food.

Don’t engage in any negative talk

“Does this make me look fat?” Boyfriends, husbands, and partners understand this to be a loaded question. They give the obligatory and over-enthusiastic answer in the negative. “No, you’re beautiful!” But for young women in a group of their peers, there has to be a better way to address this question….Right?
Experts suggest that if we want to reframe the conversation around health and body image, it’s crucial that we don’t engage in any negative talk. For a big sis, it may be second nature to reassure your little with, “No way, you look great!” But this answer validates diet culture– not your friend’s fashion choices. Sororities can help to integrate positive associations with food by unpacking the toxic ways we talk about our bodies. Like highlighting that the terms “fat” and “beautiful” are not mutually exclusive, for starters.

Offer resources for therapy or education

If college students are willing to talk about the prevalence of eating disorders, we can begin to deconstruct the potential triggers within Greek life and develop a plan for recovery from disordered eating. Sororities can provide support for those suffering from EDs by offering resources like therapy, nutrition counseling, free screening, and support groups.  Sororities can further raise awareness about the dangers of eating disorders with health education programs and prevention programs for pledges.

Creating a Safe Space for Recovery from Disordered Eating

Now that we know some of the potential triggers for disordered eating habits, we have the tools we need to reframe the way we talk about health, dieting, and a healthy diet. So instead of viewing that breakfast burrito as your daily fat intake, you can thank it for providing you with the nutrients to pass your exam. Instead of seeing that cheeseburger as your “cheat meal,” understand that you need those calories for healthy brain function and development.
When we reframe our conversation around disordered eating, we can help shift the concept of a “healthy diet” from calorie counting to finding the right foods to fuel our brain and body. If you think you have an eating disorder, or you suspect that one of your college friends or sorority sisters is suffering from an eating disorder, click here to learn more about the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder. At New Hope Counseling and Wellness, we offer nutrition therapy and trauma-informed care for eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, ARFID, and binge eating. A licensed professional can help you create a safe space for recovery from disordered eating habits.
Let’s redefine your relationship with food and your body! Find comfort and community in our free and private Facebook group for Eating Disorder Recovery Support here.
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