The Invisible Illness: An Examination of Eating Disorders at Andover

It happens behind closed doors. Students binge and purge, “food-journal” and skip meals. Eating disorders manifest across all campuses, but their prevalence and repercussions are rarely discussed.

Issues of body image and eating disorders affect high schools across the country. According to The Phillipian’s 2013 State of the Academy survey, nearly 15 percent of Andover students — including 21 percent of females and 7 percent of males — have had an eating disorder, and 60 percent of the students here know of someone who has suffered from one.

The prevalence of eating disorders on Andover’s campus is 4 percent higher than that of the average high school, according to the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. In addition to anorexia nervosa and bulimia, many students are diagnosed with EDNOS, or Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified, according to Agatha Kip, Nutrition Counselor.

“[Eating disorders are] often associated with highly competitive people. And, you know, in our culture here, thinness is ‘in,’ being overweight is frowned upon and being fat is really looked [upon] as the ‘worst thing’ possible…. So when you put lots of competitive people in one setting, you tend to find more eating disorders,” said Max Alovisetti, Director of Graham House.

Students can self-report an eating disorder, or Isham may approach students after concerned friends or faculty members suspect they may have an eating disorder, according to Kip. Isham, Graham House and Kip help students suffering with eating disorders by treating the mental, physical and nutritional aspects of their illness.

Students suffering from an eating disorder meet periodically with their entire “team,” including Kip, a Graham House counselor and Isham representative, often Sarah Robinson, Nurse Practitioner, or Amy Patel, Medical Director.

“I think there is misinformation about being kicked out of school for having anything health-wise going on with them. Often one of the first things that I will say to someone is, ‘I just want you to know that you are not going to be kicked out of school,’ and you can see the relief,” said Patel.

“[Taking medical leave] depends on where the student falls on the spectrum as to if in consultation with the health care providers, the parents, the student, outside doctors, their own doctor, if a student would be best served taking a break from [Andover] so that they can be in a healthier place,” she continued.

Patel said that Andover students’ Type-A personalities, paired with their independence, could contribute to the prevalence of eating disorders on campus.

“We are a boarding school. We want people to be independent and making their decisions, and the vast majority of our students don’t have parents watching over them and making sure that they are eating, and so it might take longer to actually get diagnosed because there isn’t somebody who is necessarily seeing that there is a problem,” said Patel.

Survey results also showed that campus stress can affect the prevalence of unhealthy habits. Seventy-five percent of students believe that campus time commitments negatively impact their health, according to the 2013 State of The Academy survey.

Laura Ippolito ’14 said, “I think that the pressure here really adds to eating disorders. There are these kids coming in here with straight ‘A’s,’ never getting below an ‘A minus,’ stellar athletes.… It’s all about control, and so I think that students try to grasp onto what they can control in their lives by controlling their bodies.”

Though eating disorders affect all students, girls on campus are three times as likely to have an eating disorder than their male counterparts.

Some students might not notice that they have an eating disorder, as instead of having medically defined anorexia or bulimia, they have an EDNOS.

“A certain number of students ‘flirt’ with an eating disorder. But, if they’re aware of it in time or someone catches it in time, they can stop relatively easily. It’s what happens after people have gone through this for years, which can happen, and they put themselves in increasingly more risk, medically,” said Alovisetti.

Within much of Andover’s campus, the “stick-thin” body ideal prevails among female students, according to Kip.

Jaleel Williams ‘15 said, “In my experience, [Andover students] see food as this double-edged sword. We’re both like, ‘Ah, yes, I love food!’ and ‘Ugh, fine, I guess I’ll have that extra slice.’ It’s almost like we’re relenting to a defeat if you decide to eat more food.”

Eating disorders and body image on campus and across the country are linked to race, class and gender. While 14 percent of white students have had an eating disorder, just over 10 percent of black or Hispanic students have had eating disorders, according to the 2013 State of the Academy survey.

“In African-American, African and Latino culture, food is viewed very differently. Historically, it was a sign, coming from poverty, that if you had money, you had access, you had food, then you weren’t skinny. As a result, that’s carried on, there’s not as much value in being skinny as in other cultures,” said Linda Griffiths, Dean of Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD).