College Life and National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

Written by Randall Flanery, PhD, Director of Webster Wellness Professionals

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAW) has been in existence almost 30 years; and education and outreach activities have been common on college campuses since NEDAW’s inception. The goals of NEDAW- education, early intervention, and starting treatment, are especially relevant for college students who are at high risk to develop an eating disorder, or to have an existing one worsen.

The majority of those who develop eating disorders do not volunteer the information to their healthcare providers and may not be screened for unusual eating habits, unexplained weight loss, critical beliefs or disparaging comments about appearance, body size, shape and weight.  While family and healthcare professionals may have more influence in addressing an eating disorder, peers are often the first to recognize when someone is struggling. NEDAW not only brings help to those who are vulnerable, but also assists friends and family to skillfully confront the issue early, when interventions can be most effective.

While the cultural pressures on young people to adhere to an arbitrary and a biologically unlikely definition of beauty have been long recognized, I would like to highlight another aspect of people entering into college that contributes to a vulnerability to developing an eating disorder.  College students are in the early phase of a developmental stage of life called emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2000).

Arnett’s research describes a stage of life, distinct from adolescence in which young adults are very much embedded in their family of origin, and not yet fully autonomous or fully capable of caring for themselves, financially and emotionally, ready to begin their own families. This period is full of paradoxes; to a large degree they are recognized socially as an adult, e.g. capable of driving a car, entering into contracts, marrying without parental consent, and yet not an autonomous adult, e.g. many live at home and are financially subsidized in various ways by parents.  Emotionally, they are not autonomous, nor do they need to be.  Rather, for college students, close relationships with family is associated with better psychosocial adjustment, higher academic functioning, and, ironically, greater autonomy than peers who do not have this closeness (Kenny, 1994).

These life transitions pose many dilemmas.  They are exciting- and anxiety-provoking; full of hopes to pursue a life path- and fraught with uncertainty; heady with freedom to make one’s own choices, and fearful that he or she may not be able to accomplish all that is necessary to become a competent adult.

Imagine what the enticing life of college might be like for a young adult who doubts their capacity to manage those challenges adequately, or if they are a bit perfectionistic, expect to accomplish it without missteps and little obvious effort.  At a time when they are more than usually vulnerable, they enter an environment which emphasizes that to fit in, they need to look right.  Thus it is not surprising, as we have long known, the transition to college is a time in which the prevalence of eating disorders spikes (Hudson et al., 2007).  Achieving the culturally defined standard of attractiveness appears to be a solution to the major life challenge of adjusting to college life.

Fortunately, this is where NEDAW can serve a very useful and probably underappreciated purpose. Besides its intended purpose to inform students of the warning signs of an incipient eating disorder and to facilitate entry into treatment, it also serves as a valuable antidote to the prevailing social environment in which the measure of the worth of a person is how they look. One benefit of NEDAW activities on college campuses is to remind our vulnerable youth that there is more to them than what the scale says, or what they have achieved so far in their young life, or whether they are like everyone else.

This contribution cannot be measured by the number of students referred for counseling, or how many were screened, or how many students were in attendance for activities.  The message of being appreciated as a whole person, with many valuable qualities, of which physical qualities are only a small part, will affect the cultural tone of the whole campus.

I believe that it is many individual acts that ultimately make the difference; seeing peers challenge the prevailing “wisdom” that you can never be too rich or too thin, who publically demonstrate that they will not be subject to the tyranny of the scale or photoshoped images of beauty. And especially, those who communicate that they value the health of the person, a human being in full, much more than whether they got an A in chemistry or were invited to homecoming parties.

In other words, NEDAW provides a forum to enter into a conversation about what is really important about being a human being.  What could be more worthwhile than that?


Arnett, J.J. (2000). Emerging Adulthood: a theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469-480.

Hudson, J., Hiripi, E., Pope, H., & Kessler, R. (2007). The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biological Psychiatry, 81(3), 348-358.

Kenny, M.E. (1994). Quality and Correlates of Parental Attachment Among Late Adolescents. Journal of Counseling and Development, 72(4), 399-403.

Learn more about Webster Wellness Professionals at or by calling 314-737-4070.

Dr. Randall Flanery earned his doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1983. He is the Director of Webster Wellness Professionals, a St. Louis eating disorder treatment center. Specific treatment interests of his are: evidence-based treatments of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other variants of eating disorders. He also is especially interested in tailoring treatment methods for males with eating disorders and weight control concerns.

He is an adjunct associate professor of Family Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. Dr. Flanery has more than 25 years of clinical experience treating eating disorders and obesity. He also has a broad background in the treatment of a variety of childhood and adolescent conditions. He uses evidenced-based methods to help individuals achieve lifetime healthy weight management and weight control. Besides authoring publications on the treatment of eating disorders and childhood health problems, he has served as Director of Eating Disorders Programs and Child/Adolescent services. He is a member of the American Psychological Association, the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals (IAEDP), Academy of Eating Disorders (AED), and the Society of Child Clinical Psychology. He is a past editor and reviewer of PsyCritiques, an online journal of reviews. Dr. Flanery is a frequent speaker to professional and public groups.