Incoming Brigham Young University co-eds have good grades, high ACT scores … and a lower-than-expected chance of developing an eating disorder while in college.
In the United States, 20 million women will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their lives, according to the New York-based National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Many develop a problem in college because it’s a time of change and emotional upheaval. And female BYU students typically fit a high-risk profile for eating disorders: religious, academically gifted Caucasian women.
But BYU students actually have a lower risk for developing an eating disorder than their peers at other universities, according to a study by BYU Counseling Psychology and Special Education Associate Professor Lane Fischer. The results appear in the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists’ publication “Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy.”
“The urban myth is that BYU is a hotbed or breeding ground for eating disorders,” said Fischer. “It’s just the exact opposite of what the urban myth says.”
For three years, Fischer and his team sampled 1,800 incoming BYU freshman, assessing their eating disorder risk and their attitudes toward their bodies. They administered the nationally recognized Eating Attitudes Test and the Body Shape Questionnaire twice a year for four years with each group of subjects.
At BYU, the overall risk of developing an eating disorder was 9-10 percent. That’s lower than the 14-17 percent risk rates at other college campuses. (Freshman women had a 12.1 percent level of a risk for eating disorders, which declined to 7.8 percent by senior year.) The co-eds dissatisfaction rates with their bodies were similar to those at other universities. More than 33 percent of freshman women were unhappy with their bodies, but the percentage decreased to 21 percent by the respondents’ senior year.
Fischer said that he was initially surprised by the number of female BYU students who had a poor body image. “It seems that the media’s thin ideal is rather ubiquitous and pernicious,” he said.
But, over time, the study showed that fewer students were unhappy with their shape. Study results have led researchers to speculate that student wards and Family Home Evening groups may have a stabilizing influence on students, said LaNae Valentine, director of BYU’s Women’s Services & Resources and a co-author of the study. Also, married students may have less anxiety about their bodies. And as students age, they may also become wiser and less focused on appearance, she said.
“It was kind of nice to have some data that demonstrates that maybe the LDS Church and culture have a positive effect,” said Valentine. “Eating disorders are more a disorder of thinking and a disorder of knowing how to handle emotion than it is a disorder of food. The data suggested that over the four-year span of time, students were more stable and settled. That suggests there is something positive about the environment at BYU.”
Carly Turner, a 21-year-old senior from San Clemente, Calif., said that she’s felt more secure with her body the longer she’s been at BYU. She says the school’s Women’s Services & Resources has done a lot to promote a healthy body image and self-esteem for women campus wide, including handing out T-shirts that say “beautiful” in big, colorful letters.
BYU isn’t a place for negative peer pressure, “it’s more of a motivational community,” said Turner. “I feel pressure to be the best woman I can be, work hard and help others.”