Boise State addresses eating disorders, a campus-wide epidemic

Photo by Niamh Brennan

A Boise State student ran into psychology Professor Mary Pritchard’s office on the sixth floor of the education building crying. “You have to help me,” the student said. She was a gymnast and cheerleader with a muscular build  who told Pritchard she needed to lose 10 pounds in a matter of days to keep her position at the top of the pyramid on her cheer team. 

Alarms sounded in Pritchard’s head; this wasn’t healthy, let alone achievable. This sparked Pritchard’s ambition to research body image and eating disorders in college students for the next 20 years. 

 According to the survey Pritchard conducted over the last two years among 11,000 psychology 101 students, 100% of students at Boise State are unhappy with how they look in some capacity. The prevalence of eating disorders and body image issues that plagues college campuses sharply increased after the COVID-19 pandemic. Boise State takes steps to address this wide-spread concern. 

Students in the survey identified pressure from family and friends, childhood teasing, athletics and the media as factors that contribute to eating disorders. 

“You read the answers and you just want to cry because people are hurting,” Pritchard said. “They’re really, really hurting because they feel pressured to look like someone that they see on social media that’s Photoshopped and airbrushed and not real and filtered.”

According to Pritchard, students experience the pressures of reaching the societal ideal which is constantly evolving. So, once they catch up, trends have already changed.

Pritchard has 25 years worth of data that shows the direct correlation between the increase in screen time and the increase of eating disorders and body image concerns. According to her research, the average person’s screen time before the pandemic was 2-4 hours a day, during COVID-19 it spiked to 12 hours a day and now, after the pandemic, it’s 8-10 hours a day.

 A 2021 study from the National Library of Medicine  found that diagnoses of all types of eating disorders skyrocketed between 2009 and 2021. The study states, “The prevalence of ED was stable between 2009 and 2018 and significantly increased from 31.8% in 2018 to 51.8% in 2021 for women, and from 13.0% in 2009 to 31.3% in 2021 for men”. 

Before COVID-19, Pritchard found that 25% of students struggled with eating disorders, now, “Forty percent of our students make the cut off for an eating disorder … but when you ask if they’ve been diagnosed, it’s 5%. There’s a huge gap between people who are getting help and need it and people who are not getting help and need it,” Pritchard said.

Pritchard works with Laci Whipple, a graduate student and Bronco Fit’s first body image intern, to publish their own research on eating disorders. 

Whipple is passionate about educating others about eating disorders which stemmed from her own experience with an eating disorder. As a licensed facilitator for “Be Body Positive”, a curriculum by mental health and wellness professionals through the organization The Body Positive, she’s working on initiating an eating disorder prevention program tailored to Boise State Students.

The National Healthcare Agency sent out a collegiate health assessment and Boise State was one of the universities surveyed. 

“There’s a question that says ‘In the last 12 months have you had a problem or challenge with personal appearance?’… 57% of our students have said ‘yes’ to that question,” Whipple said. 

To recognize National Eating Disorder Week, Whipple coordinated Body Acceptance Week at Boise State that took place Feb. 26 to March 1. Each day of the week, students participated in events promoting self-acceptance including a discussion on the intersection of media, body image and eating disorders led by Nicole Hawkins, a licensed psychologist specializing in eating disorders from Center for Change. 

Rec Center fitness coordinator, Kassidy Hays, invited Whipple to speak to her staff about ways to make a positive impact on body acceptance through fitness. Hays was prompted to take action and remove the requirement to measure an individual’s body mass index (BMI) for personal training programs.

“By shifting the emphasis away from appearance-related goals, we aim to create an inclusive environment where all individuals feel valued and empowered to move in a way that feels good to them,” Hays said.  

Pritchard gave a presentation on her research during the 2023 Body Acceptance Week to encourage faculty to implement eating disorder prevention into student services. 

Counseling Services on campus now offer body image group counseling sessions and eating disorder self assessments and Health Services implemented cards students can select to indicate their preference to not be informed of their weight. 

One at a time, student services consider the pervasiveness of eating disorders and take action to address the underlying body image issues that plague students — even in classrooms.

Pritchard does an exercise with all her psychology students on the first day of class. She instructs them to wrap their thumb and index finger around their wrist and says, “If your fingers overlap you have a small bone build. If your fingers just touch you have a medium bone build, your fingers do not touch you have a large bone build. If you have a medium or large bone build, you are never going to have a small bone build … you cannot change a piece of bone structure. Stop starving yourself. Because you’re never going to achieve this.” 

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