Content Warning: eating disorders, disordered eating patterns
I was barely a teen when Monday mornings became my worst nightmare. I still remember waking up with my heart racing, dreading the 8 a.m. swimming lessons my middle school imposed. The thought of my changing body exposed to the sight of others was enough to make my stomach ache, but unfortunately never enough for my mom to let me stay home. Now, even if going swimming doesn’t scare me as much anymore, nothing has really changed.
I’ve never considered myself to have an eating disorder. Why should I? I’ve never stopped myself from eating when I was hungry or obsessed over my weight. But the struggle with body image, the constant and undisclosed desire of wanting to change myself to be thinner—to be “better” in the eyes of others—entered my life as I was only a kid.
Moving 5,000 km away from Paris to Montreal to study at McGill made everything worse, and brought to life body image issues that had never been acted upon. It began when I first went grocery shopping. Roaming the aisles all by myself, without my mom, left alone to bear the weight of choosing my next meal—my shopping cart was all shades of green. Although switching Goldfish crackers for baby carrots was probably the most extreme behaviour I’ve engaged in, it is merely a reflection of a very stormy relationship with food and body image.
Data shows that I’m not the only one. In a survey ran over the week of Sept. 9th to 16th, 2023, The Tribune investigated “McGill students’ relationship with food and body image”, collecting a total of 134 responses, around four in five McGill students had a fear of losing or gaining weight, and three in five deliberately controlled their amount of food to influence their weight or shape. Nearly half of McGill students said they were struggling with their relationship with food and body image.
These numbers shine light on how widespread issues with disordered eating and body image are at McGill and pose important questions about the effects of such issues on students’ daily lives.
Although for most affected students these issues started before college, more than a third reported that their relationship with food and body image had worsened over their time at McGill.
Despite these numbers, the McGill administration provides no direct support to students who want to grapple with issues of food and body image. In 2017, it quietly closed its Eating Disorder Program, which provided professional healthcare, support, and group therapy, with the services dispersed into the university’s wider health system, the Student Wellness Hub. This is a system McGill students know for its inaccessibility, lack of staff and overall inefficiency.
Founded in 2019 by Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP Student Life Cody Esterle to cope with the lack of institutional support from the university, the Eating Disorder Centre (EDC) of SSMU is a chapter of Safely Connected. It is now the main resource for students who wish to talk about their relationship with food and body image.
In a conversation with The Tribune, members of the EDC’s team reflected on the widespread disordered eating patterns at McGill. Kira Burner (General Coordinator), Adam Sheeraz (Finance Coordinator), Ivy Salloum (Administrative Coordinator), and Elaine Xiao (Internal Coordinator) explained why the transition to first year could awaken dormant body issues.
“The conversation around food and body image begins before college even starts. People around you warn you about the ‘Freshman Fifteen,’ this myth that you will gain 15 pounds in your first year.” The EDC team explained. “Then you step into the dining hall and, for the first time, you’re not in the safe place of eating with your family anymore. People are looking at you constantly, watching what you choose to eat.”
If the intensification of food and body image issues is a ‘university-wide’ conversation according to the EDC, McGill’s competitive academic context also plays an important role in fostering an environment where disordered eating patterns spread.
“The stress of exam seasons at McGill makes it easy for students with food and body image issues to fall into disordered eating patterns as a control mechanism. The crowded libraries alone force students to stay in their spot for as long as they can, pushing their limits to secure their spot,” members of the EDC said.
“That’s exactly when conversations about ‘not having anything but coffee all day’ are normalized, and even sometimes turn into a competition. We should instead be talking about how you can have a balance in your life, between studying, eating and exercising.”
In the past week, 63 per cent of polled McGill students deliberately tried to control the amount of food they ate in order to influence their weight or shape. Among this group, 20 per cent did so on a daily basis.
Issues with food and body image don’t stop at controlling the amount of food, but can also take more extreme forms like fasting in order to lose weight. In the past week, 33 per cent of McGill students reported having gone at least one day without eating for eight or more waking hours in order to influence their weight or shape.
Jenna Jones, a psychotherapist at The Body Love Lab who specializes in eating disorders, explained to The Tribune the causes and effects of such eating behaviours.
“It takes a lot of time and energy to control, modify, and worry about what you eat and how you look all the time. Ultimately, that is when a mental health concern is at risk of becoming an illness: when persistent symptoms affect your ability to function on a daily basis.”
In the past week, 43 per cent of McGill students have experienced at least one instance of difficulty concentrating because of thinking about food, eating, or calories.
The data is particularly telling for Jones, who insists that suffering from your relationship with food and body image “have actually little to do with eating.”
“You don’t need to have extreme eating behaviors to feel the effects on your daily life. Someone who excessively worries about food, weight and shape can suffer just as much or even more than someone who engages in fasting behaviors, for example. It is a psychological disorder after all.”
The transition to college and the stress it imposes on students can put them at risk of developing or worsening food, weight and shape concerns, Jones adds.
“It is a time in a person’s life where they have the space to explore their identity and who they ‘should’ be—an ideal version of themselves. These existential questions can bleed into everyday choices, including what they ‘should’ eat,” Jones argued.
But when we shop for food with our phone in hand, no decision is truly made alone—social media always finds its way to influence us. Trends like “clean eating,” which promote eating foods that are as close to their natural state as possible, have a considerable impact on the lifestyle younger generations aspire to have—healthy, with a perfectly curated aesthetic. And according to Jones, it is much more than just an internet trend.
“This excessive obsession with eating “pure food” and having a “clean lifestyle” is known as “orthorexia”. Wanting to eat “healthy” food is not the problem. The problem is when you aim to eat “healthy”, regardless of what your mind and body is telling you. It is not a holistic approach to health, but rather a very narrow and counterproductive one.”
Similarly, excessive exercise is also a growing trend that is often disguised as a “healthy habit”, Jones explained. For her, such behaviours can hide an underlying desire to be perfect, one that is once again bolstered by social media and the pervasive gym culture in the university setting.
In the past week, 53 per cent of surveyed McGill students have exercised at least once a week, with almost 10 per cent of students exercising on a daily basis. While physical activity is important for health, there is no reason to worry about obsession over exercise when orthorexia comes into play and affects one’s mental and physical health.
Bruce*, 21 (BA ‘23), spoke to The Tribune about his experience with disordered eating and exercising.
“Gym culture is very centered around community, which is part of the reason why it can be toxic,” Bruce confided. “The gym becomes your social circle, and the positive reinforcement you get from the community makes it easy to have a fear of missing out when you don’t go. At some point, I was canceling other plans just to go to the gym.”
Gym culture isn’t limited to just the community aspect. According to Bruce, those behaviours reveal a deeper desire to achieve often unrealistic body goals, perpetuated by pop culture and the lack of conversation on patriarchal, toxic masculine beauty standards.
“I never realized it was a problem until I talked to a girl, who pointed out my disordered eating patterns,” he confessed. “In the name of ‘health,’ I would track my calories on an app and would never eat anything that didn’t fit my goal. It got to the point where I’d measure the weight of my grapes and bananas to get the exact caloric amount.”
While Bruce recognizes his case is extreme and does not represent the entirety of the gym community, he also emphasizes the positive returns he got from engaging in such behaviours.
“People admired me for my dedication because all they saw was the physical progress I made—not the daily mental struggle behind it.”
Physical appearance and the sense of personal worth—what the “body positivity” movement has reframed in terms of self-love—are still intrinsically related, making it hard to understand and respond to disordered eating patterns.
At McGill, 93 per cent of surveyed students feel that their relationship with food and body image impacts their self-esteem, with almost 20 per cent experiencing this “very strongly”. Yet, like me, most students are not diagnosed with an eating disorder—nor should they. Both the EDC and Jenna Jones advocate for a shift in perspective on the issue, away from the strictly medical and towards more recognition of the social, cultural and psychological struggle.
“You don’t need a diagnosis to deserve help. Your suffering is enough,” Jones said.___
The Eating Disorder Center of the Students Society of McGill University is a service that provides peer support by doing advocacy work, providing accessible educational resources and raising awareness around eating disorders. [email protected]
Methodology of Survey
All data presented in this piece was collected by The Tribune in an anonymous survey titled “McGill students’ relationship with food and body image.” Using a Google Form, the survey was shared to McGill students over the week of Sept. 9th to Sept. 16th, and collected a total of 134 responses. The survey questions were prepared with help of Jenna Jones, a psychotherapist specialized in eating disorders, who also participated in the data-analysis process.
*Bruce’s name has been changed for confidentiality.
To contact the author of the story: [email protected]