I’ll never forget the first day I arrived at DU. It was a steaming hot afternoon in early September. I was wearing cute jeans and a new top – an outfit I had carefully picked out in order to make a good impression on all of the new people I’d be meeting. My parents and I drove up to JMAC and unloaded the boxes full of (mostly unnecessary) stuff that I had definitely needed for my new life as a college student.
As we unpacked my room, I met the people who would become the mainstays of my life for the next year. Everyone was friendly, and I tried to appear confident, pushing down my insecurities and fears. Was I really going to share this tiny, hot room with another person? What if my roommate and I didn’t get along? What if I didn’t make any friends? What if the idea I had in my head of “Annette: the new-and-improved COLLEGE version” didn’t pan out?
This spring, it will be 10 years since I graduated from DU. As I think back on who I was on that first day of college, I wish I could visit my 18-year-old self and give her some guidance. I’d say:
“Annette, everything is going to be fine. The next four years will be wonderful. You will make friends who will grow with you through college and beyond. You will make decisions that will lay the groundwork for your future in ways that you can’t know in the moment. You will travel and explore and have more fun than you’ve ever had.
There will be hard times too. People will disappoint you. You’ll disappoint yourself. There will be moments in which you hate yourself, when you’re so caught up in shame and self-loathing that you’ll wonder if you’ll ever surface from it. Keep faith – there are important lessons in those hard times, and someday you’ll be grateful for them. Someday, all of the dots from the great times and the hard times will connect in a way that makes perfect sense.”
My Story: Struggle
My story isn’t unique to me. When I finally found the courage to tell it, I was blown away by the number of people who shared that they could relate. In many ways, my struggle was and is the struggle of every college girl. In fact, it’s so ingrained in our culture that we often forget that it’s there.
So here it is: when I was in college, I struggled with an unhealthy relationship with food, with my body, and as a result, with my self.
You see, an essential component of my vision for the new-and-improved-COLLEGE Annette was that this Annette would be very healthy. Within the confines of my limited perspective at the time, healthy meant thin, thin meant attractive, and attractive meant that people liked you. So, I set the goal of being – and more importantly, being seen as – someone who was very healthy. Because as much as I *would* have liked to leave caring about what others thought back in high school, I still cared. A lot. So I created rules about what I could and couldn’t eat, with the goal of being a “perfect healthy eater.”
I also signed up for a nutrition class. As I learned more, my food rules became stricter – and harder to follow, causing me to feel stressed and deprived. I made a show of choosing “good” foods while eating with other people, but I would secretly binge on “bad” foods. Why? Because they were “off limits,” and I was stressed, and food was comforting when life got tough.
I felt incredible shame around my eating challenge. I was supposed to be a perfect healthy eater – I couldn’t let the world know that I often felt out of control with food. I beat myself up for being weak and having no willpower. I thought that if I just tried hard enough, I could overcome my challenges and really become the ideal Annette that I’d built up in mind. And try I would – but the next time life got tough, I went right back to food, and subsequently, back to self-loathing.
Looking back, I marvel that I deceived myself into thinking that everyone viewed me as a perfect healthy eater – because all of that binge-eating resulted in 30 pounds of weight gain.
I know that not every college woman secretly binge-eats. But when I look back on my time at DU, knowing what I know now, it’s clear to me that many of my peers also struggled on some level with food and body image. Consider that all of the following behaviors are signs of an unhealthy relationship with food, body, and self:
• Feeling guilty after eating a “bad” food
• Measuring your self-worth by how “good” or “bad” you’ve been with food or by the number on the scale
• Being constantly dissatisfied with or ashamed of your body
• Ongoing inner and outer chatter about what you should and shouldn’t eat
• Comparing what’s on your plate to what’s on other people’s plates (and feeling superior or inferior, depending on the match-up)
• Bonding with other women over what you dislike about your bodies
• Judging other women’s bodies (whether it’s hating them because they’re perfect or thinking unkind thoughts about their perceived imperfections)
It’s no surprise that a study done by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Self magazine found that 75% of women struggle with disordered eating.
My Story: Growth
Today, I understand that my eating challenge was about much more than food and my desire to be thin. It was really about self-worth and the fact that I was connecting it to all of the wrong things. Thankfully, after struggling to a lesser extent through most of my 20s, I have now found healing. I’ve learned that an approach to food that uses force, deprivation, and shame will never work. Instead, the first step to healthy living is developing a strong sense of self-worth.
I now eat whatever I want, and I’m happier – and healthier – than ever. I’ve discovered that giving myself permission to eat and enjoy what I want means that I want healthy foods most of the time. And when I eat chocolate cake? I take genuine pleasure in every bite, without an ounce of guilt. I’ve found that when I eat to nourish my body, mind, and soul, my food fuels me to fully live this life that I love. And now, my mission is to help young women discover this same confidence and ease with eating (and living!) – without the years of struggle.
Earlier this year, I founded my own business, (w)holehearted. As a health coach, I empower girls to discover their happiest, healthiest, most authentic selves. Although I’ve been focused on serving high-school girls up to this point, a recent conversation with current DU students reminded me that many college women are still suffering like I did.
As a parent, you don’t know everything about what your kids are up to in college. However, if you notice your daughter displaying concerning thought patterns or behaviors around food or body image, and you’d like to do something about it, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’d love to help.
Annette Sloan owns (w)holehearted, a Denver-based business specializing in compassionate health coaching for teen girls. She earned her B.A. from the University of Denver and is currently working on her eating psychology coach certification through the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. For more information, and to download your free report, “The Savvy Parent: Five Essential Practices for Role-Modeling a Happy, Healthy Relationship with Food,”) visit www.healthyteengirls.com.