Beyond the rose-colored lens: The prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating on college campuses
Written by Allison Grady, B.A. – Study Coordinator
This blog post is intended for young adults feeling discouraged that their college years are “nothing like what’s on social media."
The American college experience is something that’s often glamorized, idealized and celebrated as a cultural rite of passage; a period of four years filled with self-growth, strong friendships, gameday weekends and a newfound sense of independence that leads many to proclaim that the years spent at university are “some of the best years of your life.” Such sentiments are supported through videos and images of college students plastered on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, most notably contributing to trends such as #RushTok, a TikTok trend in which incoming first-year college students post “outfit of the day” videos and document the fashionable process of “rushing” for placement in a sorority in some of the country’s most prestigious Greek Life environments (1). Such social media content appears polished, filtered, and “perfect:” painting a mirage of what college is “supposed to look like” that may be strengthened through storytelling and the fond memories shared by college students’ senior loved ones and counterparts.
So much of what we see advertised about the college experience appears through a rose-colored lens.Rarely do we hear about how difficult it is to balance your personal life and studies, to show up to class and excel on exams whilst simultaneously spending quality time with friends, working, competing in a sport, and/or fulfilling other important life obligations. Rarely is it acknowledged that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, among college-aged populations, rates of depression, alcohol use disorder, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder were significantly increased in comparison to such rates pre-pandemic (2).
Rarely is it discussed how the prevalence of clinically significant eating disorders is higher among college-aged individuals in comparison to the general population, with 20% or less of those students having received treatment for their eating disorder (3).
The transition to college is perceived as rose-colored and extravagant, yet the reality is, for many students, such advertised experience could not be farther from the truth, and there is always more to someone’s storythan what meets the eye. During the transition to college, young adults may instead experience an increased vulnerability to disordered eating and exercise behaviors and cognitions (4). Further, common college pastimes, such as involvement in a sorority, is correlated with worse weight-related outcomes (5), and college athletes are at a higher risk for body image disturbances and disordered eating behaviors, based on their motivation for sport participation (6).
For many students, college doesn’t look like it’s “supposed to,” as seen on social media or in the movies; nor does it resemble what many graduated acquaintances fondly recall in their stories of the “glory days.” Remember that people are always excited to share the “glamorous” parts of their lives, and are typically less willing to share the parts of life that aren’t as “pretty.” Just because your experience doesn’t match what others are presenting to the outside world doesn’t mean your story is of lesser value. There is always more to someone’s story than what meets the eye.
Here’s the bottom line: College is tough. Nobody talks about the challenges you face when you begin your studies as an undergraduate, and this is a frustrating sentiment. Remember that this phase of your life holds value, but it is by no means “the best.” There is so much more to life.
In the meantime, here are some ways you can help prioritize your mental health while earning your undergraduate degree:
Extra mental health resources for college students
The Mental Health Coalition: College Mental Health Toolkit
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): Mental Health in College