Renfrew Center opens discussions for peoples’ eating disorder experiences

Photo courtesy of The Renfrew Center.

Ramapo’s Counseling Services welcomed The Renfrew Center of Southern New Jersey in a virtual talking circle in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAW) on Feb. 23. Students logged on to join a discussion where they could feel safe and seen discussing their own experiences regarding body image and struggles with disordered eating. 

The Renfrew Center is the first residential eating disorder treatment facility in the country, now with two residential locations and 17 outpatient sites found across the U.S.. Each year they run a new awareness campaign during NEDAW to highlight eating disorders and body image. 

Their 2022 campaign, “Live your Reel Real Life,” is centered around building a more authentic, positive social media experience. The campaign title is supposed to mimic an Instagram reel, but it is crossed out and replaced with “Real” so social media users can live authentically, rather than just “doing it for the ‘gram.”

“Be aware of the messages and purpose behind what you are seeing on social media,” Nancy Graham, the professional relations representative for The Renfrew Center, wrote in an email. “Be mindful of how you feel after looking at social media – if it makes you feel bad or question something about yourself, avoid it in the future.”

The discussion encouraged students to question how social media has been affecting the way they feel about themselves. Negativity and unhealthy body standards are often shared across social media posts, and it is damaging to most users, especially college-aged students. 

According to a recent nationwide survey conducted by The Renfrew Center, 88% of students say using social media worsens their body image. 

“The isolation that many people have felt during the pandemic, as well as the increased dependence on virtual platforms and social media, have led to a wide array of mental health concerns, including disordered eating. Colleges need to provide more support for students experiencing emotional and mental distress in general,” Graham said. 

In addition to being the first generation growing up alongside social media and the Internet — which has had rather damaging effects — college students have additional mental and physical pressures due to attending school, and while doing so during the pandemic. 

“College can create many challenges for students during this time of transition,” Graham said. “Eating disorders are actually driven by emotional dysregulation, so the stress of being away from home as well as academic demands or athletic performance for college athletes, can trigger an eating disorder.”

The transition of living and learning in a new environment and doing so while in the midst of a pandemic heightens mental health struggles in college students. Additional factors like the limited cafeteria experience that require students to make their own choices, eat foods different from their typical meals or insufficiently eat due to busy schedules can lead to worsened levels of stress, anxiety and depression. This can consequently trigger disordered eating in students. 

In the same survey, The Renfrew Center reported that 72% of college students agreed with the statement, “I feel alone or isolated more often now than I did before the pandemic (prior to March 2020),” and 70% admitted to feeling depressed more often now than pre-pandemic. They also found that “two-thirds (67%) of surveyed students said their body image has gotten worse since before the pandemic.”

College institutions are currently lacking in bringing accurate and meaningful awareness on eating disorders to their campuses. The Renfrew Center believes that adding more resources and safe spaces for students to confide in and learn about healthy ways to navigate their struggles would be incredibly beneficial. 

“Encouraging college organizations, clubs and other groups to provide and support activities that empower students to challenge societal norms about body size and weight can be helpful as well, not just during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week but throughout the school year,” Graham said.