At a school where many students spend weekends tailgating, hanging out on boats or hitting up pool parties all while posting every moment it, the pressure to look perfect can be pretty intense. For some, the desire to have an uber-Instagrammable bikini body at all times can be too much, and lead to the development of a dangerous eating disorder. For others, unhealthy habits aren’t necessarily the result of body image issues, but of a desire to skip meals to get drunk faster and cheaper. Whichever way you slice it (or pour it), students at UM are prone to developing risky relationships with food, alcohol and body image. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
“The girls at the University of Miami don’t eat on Saturdays. I know this for a fact,” wrote Bobby D’Angelo in an August article on Total Frat Move, a website that posts satire about Greek life at universities across the country. While this statement seems wild and insensitive, it hits a little too close to the mark when it comes to a major issue for many UM students: the scary combination of booze, body image, partying and posting.
Diana Tavernise, a first-year graduate student at UM, said her struggle with food started her senior year of high school and progressively got worse at UM. “I would restrict myself to the point that if I ate one thing, I thought it was bad,” she said. “I would spiral out of control, binge and throw up. You’re in a bikini half the time, and then when you add the stress of school, it takes a bad turn on your mental health.”
According to UM alumna Melissa Spann, an alumna and licensed clinician, “Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.” Complications, she said, include cardiovascular issues, weakness, fatigue, hair loss, anxiety and depression. Similarly Christine Tellez, a registered dietitian at Gatewell Therapy Center, said eating disorders can slow down metabolism. “Your body doesn’t know whether it is starving from a diet or from a famine,” she said, “and will conserve energy so that you continue to live.”
Individuals who suffer from eating disordes often understand that their habits are unhealthy, but still cannot change them. Tavernise said she knew she was causing harm to her body, but she didn’t care. “I would work out and not eat, especially before a pool party,” she said. “I wanted nothing in my stomach because you’re taking pictures. It’s messed up, but I felt good about it at the time, and then I wouldn’t feel so bad about drunk eating later that night.”
Another common but destructive habit among college students is restricting food before going out in order to become intoxicated more quickly. Kate*, a senior at UM, said she’s done this since her freshman year. “I’m a broke college student, so I don’t want to spend the money on drinks,” she said. “And I don’t want the additional calories either. If I don’t eat during the day and drink when I’m out, it evens out.”
While drinking on an empty stomach may be effective in getting drunk faster, Tellez said it can cause harmful effects, like alcohol poisoning. “It can be helpful to remember that one night of drinking will not lead to weight gain,” she said. “College is a time where bodies are still growing and changing.” She recommends that students eat regularly throughout the day to balance blood sugar and manage cravings. “If students listen to their bodies,” she said, “they don’t need to worry about overeating.”
For friends of those suffering from eating disorders, knowing how to navigate the situation can be difficult. “It was really scary watching someone you’re so close to shrivel up and change completely,” said Madison*, a senior at UM. “It’s not just a physical change, my friend turned into a completely different person.”
This friend, Madison said, became angry, moody and unwilling to talk about the situation. “It’s so hard to bring up such a touchy subject because you don’t want to trigger her,” she said. Instead, Madison said she went to the parents of her friend. “We were like ‘we are either going to help her and she’s going to be mad at us, or we are going to watch her die,’” she said. “She had a mental illness that was controlling her whole life.”
Madison said that social media and the pressure to meet impossible beauty standards were very triggering to her friend. “She’d look at Instagram and TikTok and see all these beautiful girls that go here and think everyone looks that way,” she said. “Especially with pool parties, there’s a stigma that everyone here is super thin and that’s not true. There are a million different body types here, and they’re all beautiful.”
In the end, Madison’s friend went to a facility that she said completely changed her life. “She learned how to cook and got into a healthy workout routine,” said Madison. “She needed that structure to keep her balanced.” Once she got out, though, it wasn’t over. Madison and her friends had to sit and talk about the language they use around their friend. “Eating disorders don’t go away immediately,” she said. “The last thing we wanted to do was trigger her.”
Thaimi Fima, a licensed mental health counselor at Gatewell Therapy Center, said when helping a friend with an eating disorder, it’s important to not engage in “diet talk” or comment on bodily appearance, including ones own. “It’s very common for people to say ‘I wanna pull trig’ when they drink too much so that they feel better, but that’s not an excuse,” said Madison. “If you say things like that, it makes other people think it’s okay.”
As part of her health journey, Tavernise started a fitness page on Instagram. “It’s something I always wanted to do, but I knew I wasn’t living a healthy lifestyle,” she said. While this wasn’t an immediate fix, she said it helped her stay accountable. “I never saw a therapist, I saw a nutritionist once and that helped me figure out what to eat, but I really had to figure it out myself,” she said.
Since starting the account, Tavernise says she has changed her workout routine, gained a better relationship with food and rarely gets triggered anymore. “I usually lift and do like no cardio anymore,” she said, “which is insane because I would go to the gym for hours in layers of clothes to sweat as much as possible.”
No matter what Instagram may have you believe, there is no “perfect body.” If you or a loved one are struggling with body image issues or disordered eating behaviors, don’t be afriad to seek professional help. “[Eating disorders] can impact a student’s ability to engage in academic and social activities, so it’s important to know how to access help if you’re even slightly concerned about your relationship to food,” Spann said.
Gatewell Therapy Center
Gatewell Therapy Center in Miami works with all eating disorders. Contact this number or visit their website if you or someone you know wants to seek help.
* Some names in this article have been changed to protect sources’ identities.
words_gabrielle lord. photo_nailah anderson. design_keagan larkins.