The Subculture of Eating Disorders in a College Setting/Culture

By Ella McLaughlin


I woke up feeling awful in every way imaginable. I had only been here for two weeks but even the prospect of college life was draining. There was no food in the fridge, piles of dishes in the sink, a mountain of laundry, and a disgusting bathroom awaiting me. I cringed at the thought of having to enter that environment. Whenever I talked to the people around me or other adults in my life, I was repeatedly told a series of phrases: “This is just college life”, “The best years of my life”, “Oh, that’s just all part of college”, “You can take care of yourself after college, that’s when you actually become an adult.” 

I don’t understand. This is part of college? Malnourishment? Not sleeping? Forgetting or having no time to eat? Normalized drug abuse and alcoholism? Running solely on caffeine and severe mental health issues that are brushed off as “the college experience”? This is what I’m expected to endure and come to love for at least four years of my life? If so, I want no part of it. I did not want to get into debt for this awful experience. 

I’ve already experienced the short-lived thrill of not taking care of myself during my senior year of high school. If we go into specifics, the malnourishment and “running solely on caffeine and severe mental health issues” part. It didn’t get me anywhere except for a recovery center where I had the concept of choice and privacy taken away from me (not to say it wasn’t necessary). I wasn’t living. I was purely surviving for this mental illness that was trying to kill me. I remember moments staring at a plate in front of me, feeling so guilty for even wanting to eat, and breaking down sobbing because I didn’t understand “what was wrong with me.” I was horrified when I stepped on campus to find that the very types of behaviors that had gotten me to that point, and that I had worked so hard to get rid of, were normalized and even romanticized there. It was seen as a way of life in college and I refuse to live that way. 

Body Talk

The phrase “This is all I've had to eat today”, or something along those lines, is not uncommon to hear in the general public. Especially on a college campus where everyone is competing to be the most “fit” or trying to avoid the “freshman 15.” The stigma, and the fear insinuated with it, of gaining 15 pounds during your freshman year of college has been passed down through generations of students. In eating disorder recovery, I’ve had my battle with the fear of getting my “freshman 15.” I was terrified of eating food I was craving in hopes of keeping weight off. In reality, my body wanted to gain weight. An article published by CNN states- “In contrast to what our culture promotes, college students are supposed to gain weight because they are ‘in a phase of important and ongoing growth and development…”(Hanson). Most college student’s bodies are growing and changing and I repeatedly tell myself that it wasn’t anybody’s business what my weight was. So who the hell cares? The most important opinion about my body is mine. 

In our culture, gaining weight has been seen as something you should avoid at all costs. Eating less than the people around you is a bragging right, one that heavily affects the people around you. However, the factor put above all in diet culture competition is the size of your body or how it looks. Even when others are not outwardly shaming you for the way you look, self-depreciation is still there. When interviewing a musical theatre student at Marymount Manhattan College, they shared with me how they feel they can't “get on their level” - referring to the students with smaller bodies in dance classes. This piece of the interview sheds light on how issues with body image affect other aspects of life, like confidence in activities such as performing arts. In my personal experience in musical theatre, I felt I had to constantly be in the best shape possible and look the most socially accepted and admired so people enjoyed watching me on stage more. 

Body image affects multiple types of relationships as well. It can cause insecurity in romantic relationships and may make you want to create a bubble around yourself, isolating you from others. When interviewing another student, they spoke about what it can be like having body image insecurities in all kinds of relationships; the common thought was, "Why me when there are more conventionally attractive people.” Physical attraction is such a huge part of our culture that it can be confusing why someone would want to be with you romantically when you think of yourself as hideous. This can lead to huge insecurities in the relationship and jealousy. In terms of relationships in college: you are constantly meeting new people. Your guard is constantly up and you are constantly left wondering how people perceive you and your physical flaws. It’s draining and without effective and healthy coping mechanisms, you’re left dry and in need of a bit of therapy. 

Less Than Meets the Eye

I don’t think I have ever been so belittled and unironically triggered than when I was sitting in my high school counselors office after getting out of my partial-hospitalization program. I could tell she cared about me and wanted to help me through what I was going through, but at the same time, how she spoke to me and what she said to me made me feel stupid and like I was making events up. I often heard the phrase, “Yes but that’s how YOU interpreted it,” a number of times. I remember wanting to say, “Yes, that is how I interpreted it. They may have not meant it that way, but it hurt my feelings and my feelings aren’t something I can control.” These once-a-week meetings that were meant to be helpful were awful. I felt embarrassed and misunderstood coming out of each one. I wasn’t surprised to hear that college counselors seemed to be the same way.

I had asked all of my interviewees their experience with the counseling center at Marymount Manhattan College and I seemed to get similar answers from all of them. The general consensus was they know the “Wellness Center” is here, but it’s felt it will do more harm than good. One interviewee stated they’ve had a bad experience there and wouldn’t trust the counselors “bedside manner.” All of the people interviewed felt unheard and that they had a lack of resources on campus. During my fourth interview, it was mentioned that what they’ve heard from upperclassmen was negative. Why does it seem that the general consensus among the student body was to avoid the Wellness Center? It may be the potential lack of training. A study from 2011 surveyed 109 school counselors from a single metropolitan area and found that only 6% of school counselors felt “very competent” identifying students with eating disorders, and only 2% felt they could help a student with an eating disorder (Harshbarger). Alarmingly, 55% of those counselors felt eating disorders were an issue in their school. The study then compared the results to a study from 20 years prior, concluding, “...knowledge of AN[1] and BN[2] appear to have increased, school counselors still lack some basic understanding and report very low confidence in identifying and helping students with eating disorders.” Assuming we can apply some of these same circumstances to college counselors, we can conclude that these counselors are not readily equipped to help someone struggling with an eating disorder. 

Unfortunately, the student body of Marymount Manhattan College seems to feel that the support they have been provided with on campus is not adequately trained to meet their needs. Being one of the people in that student body, I would have to agree. It would be a great place to find other resources, but not a counseling resource in itself. It is, however, advertised as a therapy resource and that is part of the issue. Students should be able to feel safe in a therapist's office, not judged and anxiously awaiting criticism.

[1] Anorexia nervosa [2] Bulimia nervosa 

This Can’t Possibly be Worth Dining Dollars

I easily get stressed out, you’d be surprised how easily. I color coordinate my calendar and have a section for each different activity. Perfectionism is easily a funnel into an eating disorder. Multiple studies have been conducted that point to perfectionism being “an integral aspect of ED” (Petersson). In fact, people with eating disorders tend to score higher on levels of perfectionism (Petersson). In my experience, one of the most effective ways of treating my eating disorder was losing that aspect of control over my food. I had no control over the amount of food put on my plate, the time I ate, or what I was eating. My partial-hospitalization program decided all of that for me. Sounds awful, and at first it was, but it allowed me to only focus on overcoming the barrier of eating. Throughout recovery I had to relearn making decisions surrounding food, mostly because of how anxious that aspect made me.

During interviews, it was shared with me from multiple people that they still experience anxiety while making food-related decisions. I, myself, find the dining dollars and Grubhub integrated system in Marymount Manhattan College difficult to manage and only increases my food-related anxiety. The majority of the other interviewees shared the same experience. Going into freshman year of college was my first experience with adulthood. I was overwhelmed with difficult coursework, time management, living with strangers, and not having the support system I was used to having at home. Dining dollars added the aspect of budgeting my food, having to go get that food, and consciously making sure I got all the needed nutrition. The only cafe on campus is a 22 minute walk from the freshman building and it is closed on weekends. This leaves the only alternative being to get groceries. There is a way to get groceries delivered to your dorm through grubhub, called “GoPuff.” However, GoPuff is extremely expensive and hard to budget. Most students opt to use their own money to buy reasonably priced groceries. An interviewee shared with me that the aspect of going out to buy groceries, lugging them home, and finding the time and energy to do that is difficult. I have to agree. Sometimes I decide to put off getting food I need because it can be cold and draining, or I have other assignments to do. After you manage to get groceries home, you will find there is no oven in the freshman dorms, and a communal kitchen at the other dorms, Found Study. Since there is no oven at the freshman dorms, meal planning and making nutritious meals is difficult. Being someone who has a gluten allergy, it is especially difficult and I have been very limited in the meals I can make (there are only so many times someone can make gluten free pasta). I have also found that the cafe at the campus is very limited in their gluten free options and it’s very expensive.

At the beginning of the semester, I once asked for some stir fry at the allergen station. When it was done, there was barely enough to be considered a lunch and it came out to $12. From that point on I brought my own lunch everyday. A reason for this is they recently changed providers for their cafe, that is not, however, an excuse for $12 stir fry. An interviewee who lives at found study told me that cooking there isn’t quite easy either. They have communal kitchens (with ovens) you find every few floors, but you can imagine how crowded it can get when dinner time rolls around. A common issue when it comes to eating at Marymount is the scheduling. Some professors may go for hours at a time teaching with no breaks to eat anything. The found study interviewee told me they have a professor that doesn’t allow his students to speak with him before class because he teaches for six straight hours and only has enough time to choke down a granola bar. This is something that is definitely unacceptable and not a norm that anyone should be dealing with. 

Improvement Seeking

Of course there is not all bad at Marymount Manhattan. I’m happy to say that I’ve met some of the most supportive and welcoming people and professors there that I hope to never forget. You feel that you are surrounded by a community that truly wants you to succeed. Improvement for the school is very much possible and I hope to see it happen. One of which is adding to their mental health staff. Their counselors may be very qualified, but the case load is too big and they’re trying to accommodate the entire student body, they will be burnt out. When you are burnt out, you can’t function well or be the best version of yourself. In fact, counselors being burnt out is not uncommon. In 2020, school counselors have been reported to be burnt out at a rate of 67% (Kee); Marymount Manhattan is not the only victim of trying to accommodate too many people. A suggestion could also be focusing more on finding counselors outside the school to work with the students on a case-by-case basis, instead of trying to help everyone all the time.

In reference to their dining issues, they have many opportunities for improvement. One is expanding their options for dietary restrictions, and another is possibly adding a nutrition program for students to educate them on what nutrients they need so they aren’t stumbling around in the dark. Many students don’t have “food literacy”, like budgeting or food cooking skills (Hagedorn-Hartfield); this would be a huge step in the right direction. One of my favorite improvement ideas came from my interviewee who stays at the found study dorms. They suggested a mandatory 30-minute block where no classes were scheduled at all throughout the school. The interviewee is a transfer student and the school they transferred from had implemented this policy. They said it was helpful and even if they weren’t consciously thinking of eating, they would decide to go to the commons or cafe to get something to eat anyway as a way to kill time. This policy would give students and professors the time they needed to eat and have a break if they didn’t have one that day. 


I am going to reiterate how much I do appreciate Marymount Manhattan College; it’s a wonderful school full of wonderful people. However, they have their share of issues that do affect their students and faculty. For that reason, it shouldn’t be brushed under the rug because they are “doing their best.” Do better. Listen to your students, the people paying to go to your institution. More people are battling eating disorders than we'll ever know, because of that reason, food should not be an issue. It also shouldn’t be an issue because food is a basic necessity. Unfortunately, the system Marymount Manhattan College has set up makes getting that basic necessity more stressful than it has to be. Originally starting this autoethnography, I was focusing on the surface of eating disorder behaviors in a college setting. I realize it has become much more niche than that, it focuses a lot more on Marymount Manhattan itself than I have intended. I believe this has happened because, one, this college is my everyday: I eat here, study here, and sleep here. But it has also happened because this shouldn’t be an issue. Getting accessible food that is affordable should not be such an issue on a college campus; it saddens and angers me. Interviewing people shed a lot more light on the issue for me and I found out about other grievances related to them. People are struggling and I can afford to care enough to want to change that. I hope that Marymount Manhattan College takes this all into account and makes true strides to solve their issues. In the meantime, I will be solving mine.


Hanson, Oona. “Eating Disorders Run Rampant on University Campuses. How to Protect Your College-Bound Kid.” CNN, Cable News Network, 12 Aug. 2023,

Harshbarger, J L et al. “School counselors' knowledge of eating disorders.” Eating and  weight disorders : EWD vol. 16,2 (2011): e131-6. doi:10.1007/BF03325319

Petersson, Suzanne et al. “Perfectionism in Eating Disorders: Are Long-Term Outcomes Influenced by Extent and Changeability in Initial Perfectionism?.” Journal for person-oriented research vol. 4,1 1-14. 10 Aug. 2018, doi:10.17505/jpor.2018.01

Hagedorn-Hatfield, Rebecca L et al. “A Decade of College Student Hunger: What We Know and Where We Need to Go.” Frontiers in public health vol. 10 837724. 25 Feb. 2022, doi:10.3389/fpubh.2022.837724

Kee, TaRael. “Protecting Your Mental and Physical Health to Avoid Burnout.” Protecting Your Mental and Physical Health to Avoid Burnout - American School Counselor Association (ASCA), Apr. 2020,

Meet Ella McLaughlin

Ella McLaughlin is a freshman at Marymount Manhattan and is honored to have her work included in Issue V: Maps! She is majoring in international studies and in her free time enjoys reading and walking around Central Park. In the future, Ella hopes to do humanitarian and diplomacy work.

Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff