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Schools to focus on eating disorders

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Elena Estanol had to stay thin.

Her aspirations of becoming a professional dancer demanded it, prompting her to forgo meals to keep her slender form.

The sparse meals didn't seem like an eating disorder to Estanol, who followed her strict diet well into her college career at the University of Utah. But the young dancer finally admitted she had anorexia the day her eating habits shattered her dreams.

She couldn't dance.

Estanol's malnourished body was too thin to keep dancing, and frequent stress fractures relegated her to the sidelines.

"The one thing I had wanted most — to be a professional dancer — was taken away from me because of the eating disorder," said Estanol, who is now a U. doctoral student in counseling psychology. "It was kind of an awakening for me to realize that I needed to do something."

Estanol was able to get her body back on track after therapy and time away from the dance floor and is now working to help other college students recover from eating disorders, ranging from restrictive diets to anorexia and bulimia.

Along with other body-image activists, Estanol will be helping spread awareness about the prevalence of eating disorders on college campuses during "Love Your Body" week at the University of Utah, Salt Lake Community College and Westminster College.

"We see a huge increase in eating disorders in college women because that is a huge transition period. They leave home, start to view themselves as adults and fully enter the dating scene," said Estanol, a member of Students Promoting Eating Disorder Awareness and Knowledge (SPEAK) at the U. "They feel a little bit out of control and the focus on weight seems to be a lot easier to handle."

The weeklong series of lectures and events will focus on how to accept different body sizes without catering to the ideal of the perfect woman, said Justine Reel, founder of SPEAK and a U. professor of exercise science. The activities, which begin at SLCC at noon Tuesday, kick off a national Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

Although some of the week's events will include students like Estanol who recovered from eating disorders, the real emphasis will be on being happy with "whatever size or whatever number the scale says," Reel said.

"If they can get the awareness and the treatment they need in the college years, hopefully they can have healthy and productive and happy lives. There's a whole life ahead of them," said Reel, who noted nearly 80 percent of women are dissatisfied with their bodies.

That message is particularly important in college, Reel added, when students are under pressure from coaches, roommates and dates to be thin. Many students, she added, don't even recognize they are heading toward an eating disorder or may already have one because it doesn't fit the classic signs of purging or binge eating.

In addition, college students often only get positive feedback from peers who comment on how much weight they have lost. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 91 percent of women on college campuses have attempted to control their weight through dieting and 22 percent diet "often" or "always."

That atmosphere creates a "fear of fat," which recovered anorexic student Cari Morphet said drives many students to curb eating and develop eating disorders.

Morphet, a SPEAK member and graduate student at the U., battled her bulimia for years before finally accepting that she needed help. At the worst time of her illness, Morphet was purging five times a day.

"I was thinking it was really bad, but I didn't have anyone to turn to. I felt I needed to hold on to it," she said.

Morphet also attributes much of her bout with bulimia to low self-esteem, a problem she said runs rampant on college campuses. Often away from home for the first time, college women are desperate to fit in and to have some control over their lives, she said.

"The behavior was just the surface. There's all the stuff you have to deal with underneath — the self-esteem, the anger," she said. Morphet will be talking about her experiences as part of the SPEAK panel, hoping to draw attention to the underlying causes of eating disorders. Many college students, she said, are at some point on the continuum of eating disorders and may not realize realized it yet because they are not vomiting or skipping full meals.

Cindy Harling, a social worker at the U. Counseling Center, said it's difficult to find any woman on a college campus who doesn't have some body-image concerns. By focusing on shedding society's views on beauty, Harling said, the "Love Your Body" activities are aimed at getting women to realize they may be headed toward more dangerous habits. "When you are involved in eating disorders it can be kind of a shameful thing," she said. "That's a barrier for coming in for treatment. But the sooner you get treatment, the more hope there is for recovery."

And while parents aren't around on campus to raise concerns about rapid weight loss, Reel said college students can help each other by looking for key signs of an eating disorder. Those include fatigue, irritability, excessive exercise, canceling social dates to work out, being secretive about eating and having food disappear from the cabinet.

E-mail: estewart@desnews.com