College students with eating disorders often struggle and suffer alone, alienating themselves from friends and “obsessing,” as Samantha Phillips ’21 said, “about food or body checking.”
Phillips would know. Last year at this time she said that she was in the depths of her disorder, anorexia nervosa, and even though William & Mary was offering programs in conjunction with National Eating Disorders Awareness week, she did not attend. Then she listened to a talk by Roxie Patton, associate director of the Center for Student Diversity, and it inspired her to act.
Together with Laila Drury ’19, who also deals with anorexia nervosa, they have organized a series of events around this year’s National Eating Disorders Awareness week. Tonight at 7 p.m. at the Integrated Science Center, Room 1127, a panel of seven undergraduate students will share their experiences dealing with eating disorders. Phillips will introduce the panel, Drury will speak. Thursday at the same time at Sadler Center's Lodge One, there will be a Self-Care fair, where booths manned by numerous student health-oriented organizations will be available for anyone to check out and sample products.
“This has been a journey throughout most of my college experience,” Drury said. “It’s something that’s changed the trajectory of my life, something that affected me really negatively and in a way that's also opened my eyes and given me a new perspective on life. It's now allowing me to create such positive change in the world, which is something I am grateful for.”
Phillips said that Patton’s talk motivated her to “to use my privilege to build and bring other people up.”
Both students were addressing their disorders with a counselor at the university's counseling center. But she left W&M before the start of the second semester and before planning for the 2019 NEDA event began.
“I realized no one was going to do it,” Phillips said. “I posted about it and people reached out. So many people did, they wanted to help. Laila reached out and by that night we had Google docs and we’ve just been a team ever since. We’ve really put our souls into this, to be honest. It’s helped so much with our recovery to be able to lift other people up and help them come to terms with their eating disorders and start the path of distancing themselves from them.”
The students anticipate a crowd of about 200 tonight, and they have several messages they seek to impart.
“Eating disorders are not a choice, not something people choose to do because they want to look better or feel better,” Drury said. “When someone is predisposed to a eating disorder, and there’s a certain amount of stress on their life, the disorder develops as a mechanism of control and avoidance of fear.”
Drury estimated that her disorder began about the time she was in sixth grade but intensified once she came to college. She was diagnosed as a sophomore and has tried to address it openly since.
“I want to be an advocate, to shed light on this awful thing, this disease, to help other people feel that they are not alone in this," she said. "It’s not weak to reach out for help, not weak to seek treatment or therapy or some kind of support.”
Phillips hopes that those they are able to touch ultimately have an experience similar to the one she is going through now.
“A year ago, I felt completely hopeless and in the depths of my eating disorder,” she said. “Although this experience was painful and recovery has been a difficult journey, I am so grateful for each and every minute I can spend connecting with others and encouraging them to find their passion for life again.”
Drury added that the events are open to all, not just those impacted by eating disorders.
"We aim to raise awareness, bash stigma and foster community regarding eating disorders," she said. "This week is for everyone, whether you have an eating disorder, or know someone with an eating disorder, or if you’ve ever struggled with poor body image or feelings of unworthiness."