If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.
Every summer from the time I was 12 years old to 19 years old, I trained at sleep-away ballet summer intensives. For six weeks, I'd dance eight hours a day, and live in a dorm with hundreds of other aspiring ballet dancers. These programs are infamous pressure cookers, hence why they're called "intensives" and not "camps." As you can imagine, putting a bunch of young, impressionable ballet dancers in a group together can heighten some Black Swan-level competition and unhealthy behaviors, including disordered eating.
I can remember buying laxative tea with my roommates one summer, because we heard a dancer we admired drank it. Another summer, a roommate brought a Costco-size package of apple sauce, which she said she'd be exclusively eating all summer. In retrospect, we were unhealthy and didn't know better — after all, everyone else in the dorms was doing it. But when I went to college and studied dance, I became acutely aware of how having roommates can influence the way that you eat, for better or worse.
When you start living with someone, it's common for their eating behaviors to subtly rub off on you, especially if you're spending most of your time together. Meals are very social, and eating with your roommates is often the way that you first hang out and bond, says Lauren Smolar, director of programs at the National Eating Disorders Association. "The way that a lot of people are eating, and the social aspect of it certainly may influence someone’s eating habits," Smolar says. If you're someone who's already having a hard time with your relationship to food, then these sorts of scenarios can make it more difficult to tune in to your own needs, she says. In a way, disordered eating habits can feel somewhat contagious.
Having roommates or just social living environments, while that's an opportunity for support, on the other hand of that, there may be opportunities where collective disordered eating happens.
Lauren Smolar, director of programs at the National Eating Disorders Association
Within all different types of social environments, we have a tendency to normalize certain behaviors — including ones that aren't healthy, Smolar says. Unfortunately, if people in your immediate circle have disordered eating tendencies, then it can feel really difficult not to engage, she says. "Having roommates or just social living environments, while that's an opportunity for support, on the other hand of that, there may be opportunities where collective disordered eating happens," she says. "That can be really hard for somebody to turn off or realize that it's a problem."
This hive mentality can occur at a dance camp, in a sorority, on a sports team, in a workout class, at a new job, and even within families. "We can see that in a lot of different places," Smolar says. But if you're going away to college and living with roommates for the first time, then the stress of a life change (and making new friends, and surviving a new workload, and paying for it all) can also make you feel extra vulnerable. "Your planning is going to be different, your routines, and your options," she says. "Those can all be really challenging, in particular if somebody is already struggling with their relationship to food."
In these transition periods, it's extra important to prioritize having a good support system, and to resist letting the people around you sway or negatively twist your personal beliefs about food. You might want to connect with a therapist at your college health clinic (often those services are free) who specializes in eating disorders. If you're living with people right now, and you're concerned about their habits and relationship to food, then approach the situation in a concerned and supportive way. (NEDA has a great guide for talking to a friend about an eating disorder.)
"Know that pressure can really trigger people who have a hard time with their relationship with food and exercise," Smolar says. Often when people are triggered, there's a tendency to isolate. "If you feel like that’s something thats really a concern, and is getting in the way of you being able to live a happy, healthy life, then we do recommend seeking professional help to help you navigate that," she says.