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Maintaining the ‘Miami image’: The reality of disordered eating at a party school

<p>Party culture combined with a pressure to maintain a certain image worsen eating disorders at Miami.</p>

Party culture combined with a pressure to maintain a certain image worsen eating disorders at Miami.

The women interviewed for this piece are only referred to by their first names for the sake of their privacy.

Taylor pays careful attention to every detail. Tanned and unbelievably slim, she practically floats through the crowd, attracting the eyes of all around her. Girls like her are omnipresent; you see her at every house party, fraternity function and, despite her hangover from the previous night, at Brick Street Bar & Grill on Saturdays.

Everyone knows someone like Taylor. She embodies the Miami University image that so many strive to reach. But obtaining this image has a price.

Taylor starves herself until her hands shake, even under thick mittens. Her face is broken out from purging every White Claw and Trashcan from the weekend before. Her chapped knuckles, sore from forcing herself to vomit, sting when she applies Neosporin to them. As she walks to class on Monday, her skin has an almost translucent, greenish tone in the frigid Ohio winter. 

Eating disorders like Taylor’s are common at Miami. 

Rose Marie Ward, associate dean of the graduate school and a specialist in eating disorders and party culture, explained that when she first got onto campus she heard a rumor that one in five students at Miami have an eating disorder. 

This isn't true, but it piqued Ward's interest in studying Miami students' behavior.

Miami students experience binge eating disorder (BED), the most common eating disorder in the United States, in addition to anorexia nervosa, a disorder that causes an individual to refuse food to lose weight, and bulimia, a disorder characterized by a compulsion to vomit or over-exercise to lose weight. 

Even more common on college campuses are undiagnosed disordered eating behaviors. Among these is drunkorexia, a behavioral pattern of starvation, purging, or both that occurs before pre-planned binge drinking.

“An eating disorder is something totally different from drunkorexia. An eating disorder is a pervasive part of their life that [sufferers] feel they can’t control,” Ward said. “An eating disorder has to be diagnosed by a clinician. Drunkorexia is more related to alcohol disorders and alcohol use.”

With the spread of unattainable body ideals across social media, there has been a rise in disordered eating behavior among college-age people. Miami students are feeling the impact, especially at an intersection with the university’s reputation as a party school.

“I do think the label and the celebration of [disordered eating] is more common now,” Ward said, explaining that Miami has had the reputation of a party school as long as she has been teaching at the university.

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Ward said Miami is an ideal place to study the convergence of disordered eating and party culture because of the so-called “Miami image.”

“You have to come off in a certain way, pass off as a certain way, have to be good looking,” Ward said. “People are going to make choices about their food, their exercise, because the other part of the Miami image is that you party with no consequences [i.e. weight gain].”

The effect of eating disorders extends outside of a clinician’s office. The prevalence of disordered eating at Miami is evident at parties and bars. Many women are not afraid to speak openly about these behaviors.

Emerging from a stall in the Brick Street Bar bathroom, the smell of spilled alcohol and vomit fresh in the air, Maddie opened up.

“Oh yeah, it’s pretty normal,” the first-year said, gesturing to the toilet behind her. “I’ll [intentionally vomit] a few times … depending on how much [alcohol] I have.”

“I [intentionally fast] almost every day,” Maddie added. “Just to make up for [weekend binging]. You have to eat more not to pass out, but you also want to look hot.”

Annie, a first-year, nodded as she stood next to Maddie with her eyes locked on the mirror.

“[I vomit] to not bloat,” she said. “You don’t want bloating [from alcohol]. I don’t drink beer because of that.”

Annie admitted that she struggled with an eating disorder beginning in high school and was working on her recovery process.

“It’s hard here [at Miami],” she said. “Everyone does it here, so I get triggered, like, all the time.”

Others in eating disorder recovery have reported the same feelings.

“I relapsed in my first semester,” said sophomore Olivia while fumbling with a White Claw in each hand at a Miami fraternity party. “It was fucking brutal. If anything, [the disorder] got a ton fucking worse.”

Olivia said the culture in some sororities at Miami perpetuates a “slim-body standard” that requires unhealthy fasting, restriction or purging to maintain. 

She admitted that the party culture at Miami has altered her path to recovery. 

Olivia now suffers with drunkorexia and deliberately vomits after binge drinking in an effort to prevent weight gain. She acknowledged that her destructive habits have affected her both mentally and physically; even coughing can trigger her to vomit.

“It’s literally everyone,” Olivia said, referring to the number of eating disorder survivors at Miami who relapse. 

Shruti Ram Shankar, a Miami clinical psychology doctoral student specializing in eating disorders, said there’s a reason that students are struggling with the combination of a drinking and disordered eating culture: people don’t acknowledge there’s a problem.

“Clinically, [drunkorexia] is a real diagnosis which is actually called ‘comorbid eating and substance use disorder,’” Ram Shankar wrote in an email to The Miami Student. “Drinking and dieting are both common in college and pathological behaviors such as abusing alcohol or drugs, restricting your diet or binge-eating can go unnoticed or [be] seen as socially acceptable.”

Despite common belief, she explained, drunkorexia and eating disorders aren’t exclusive to women. The pervasive nature of this issue across every demographic on campus may contribute to the difficulty in acknowledging a problem.

“All groups, all gender identities do it to conform [to party culture],” Ward said.

Ward identified that disordered eating habits do not differ between men and women, but the factors that lead them to develop disordered eating behaviors are usually different.

“People who identify as men are more likely to say they’re [using disordered eating behavior] to increase their buzz, and so they’re not going to drink a lot because [they] get drunk quicker,” she said.

Ram Shankar acknowledged this occurrence as well.

“Males are less likely to engage in ‘traditional’ disordered-eating behaviors like vomiting and using laxatives and are more likely than women to engage in ‘bulking,’ increased caloric intake in order to build muscle, or ‘cutting,’ which is restricting calories to reduce fat and achieve a more leaner body type,” she wrote.

Although many suffer from disordered eating or exercise habits, there is a notable reluctance among men to speak on the issue. The Student reached out to five men in bars and at fraternity parties around campus, but they either did not respond to the questions or did not recognize a problem with disordered eating behaviors among Miami men.

Because eating disorders and drunkorexia are so common at Miami, it can be difficult to recognize when healthy habits become disordered behavior.

Miami University’s Student Counseling Service and psychology clinic offer support services to students dealing with an eating disorder and mental health issues, including substance abuse. However, Ward doesn’t believe it’s only the administration’s responsibility to handle the situation.

“As a culture, we need to stop valuing this,” she said. “[Shifting attitudes is] really us changing the norms on campus. [We] need a culture shift.”


A previous version of this article misstated that one in five Miami students have an eating disorder. This is a popular rumor, but it has not been verified by an study or specialist.