Starving for perfection: The hidden eating disorder epidemic that plagues Britain’s Universities

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The size zero debate rages on, yet the details are as slim as the models. Just who are these ‘young girls’ who are succeptible to eating problems, and what lies behind their disordered eating? The need for young women to have a healthy body image is clear, but could thousands of girls be at risk from attending a top university? Behind the aspirational image, some of the country’s top universities are breeding grounds for aspirational eating.

It is easy to see the main problems arising from the introduction and increase of tuition fees as being about inclusion; those from families who are not sufficiently wealthy to pay for university will choose not to attend. However having attended one of Britain’s top universities, it is clear that there is a more subtle problem that is tearing many students apart: there is more pressure than ever for students to make sure their parents’ money was well spent.

Speak to any conscientious student about what they would like to achieve and grades will likely come up. There is a huge perception among students, that I felt was very intense, that anything less than a 2:1 is failure. Speaking to my mother about her experiences of university, she commented that anyone coming out with that type of statement would be shocking, people just did their best and were proud to have a degree at all. Perhaps this is one of the unforseen problems of wider inclusion. To be one of the ‘best’, to get the ‘best’ jobs, no longer just requires attending university, but attending a top university and coming away with a top degree.

When you put Britain’s ‘top’ students together in such a competitive environment, and put them in student halls together, it is likely competition will be rife. Gone the days when students only owned a few clothes, that Sienna Miller ‘just threw it on’ look is the mode du jour for female students. The huge encouragement to drink, date and generally let yourself go as a student makes lectures a prime time to impress: carefully dishevelled hair, fake tan, barely there makeup and a sexy boho outfit are the order of the day, as is all night partying (or else you’re not taking advantage of uni life). Oh, and don’t forget work experience; a younger friend summarized the idea that “Now everyone’s getting degrees you need extra points on your CV. Volunteering and office experience are practically essentials”.

Feeling that they have to be the sexy life and soul of the party as well as the studious 2:1 student and Miss Extra-Curricular, something had to give in the life of the female ‘A’ student. In the club all night and the library all day, these young women feel they are expected to have it all before they’ve even finished their education. Whether it is caused by the need to feel more attractive, or just to gain a sense of control, the unfortunate breaking point often comes at meal times.

Eating around other females, as any woman knows, often provokes talk of diets and health. Its not hard to see that with the pressure on at university, feeling the need to be competitive can spill over into competitive eating. In one year at university I encountered house dieting, critical housemates, endless discussion over who had the best body, an overwhelming obsession with ‘healthy eating’, detoxing and complete condemnation of ‘junk food’.

I would never suggest that this applied to all female students, but the huge amount of people I met with these issues had led me to believe that it is not by any means uncommon.

That at university I personally knew several girls with full blown eating disorders who were very popular and high achieving, and admired by other girls, led me to discuss this issue with other female friends. Statements such as “when i’m revising I barely eat” and “I feel very self-conscious eating around my housemate-she only eats salads” were surprisingly common.

Finally, I looked at my own eating. I had never had any issues with food prior to university, but the realisation that I saw being a size ten as very important, tried to eat as healthily as possible around other girls and felt guilty taking seconds was difficult. Whether university is just a time of huge change for young women and they feel the need to control something, or whether the pressure students feel at university has substantially increased, I don’t claim to know. However, that there is a huge desire for perfection among female students at top universities I must state is true: I’ve experienced it and its easy to see how getting down to a size six is more achieveable than getting those top grades.