Your Student Life: Disordered Eating, Perfectionism and the Graduate Student

September 19, 2021

One of the known factors that may cause the emergence or exacerbation of eating disorders is stress. Stress is also a part of life that many graduate students share. It is not, then, completely unsurprising that there is a link between higher eating disorder occurrence/severity and graduate education. A study published in the Journal of American College Health found that, out of the 305 graduate students surveyed, 82% had some level of body image dissatisfaction (with 36% reporting moderate to severe dissatisfaction) and 45% exhibited moderate to severe food avoidance or dietary rules in their everyday eating patterns (Parker, Lyon, & Bonner, 2010).  

Graduate students are at high risk for experiencing overwhelming stress, perfectionism, and anxiety. All three of these have been shown to increase the risk for disordered eating. For some, disordered eating behaviors become a way to feel a false sense of “control” when life becomes overwhelming. For others, the perfectionist attitude that allows them to succeed in school spills into a desire to lose weight to conform to the “perfect” body ideal.  

Here are some important reminders for any graduate student who may be experiencing body dissatisfaction or disordered eating behaviors: 

  1. You can desire success without desiring perfection. In fact, perfection will always be out of reach. You do not need to be “perfect” or “exceptional” to have the success that you’re pursuing.  
  2. Your desire to change your body may be driven by a need to feel “in control” or fulfill a need to be “perfect.” Unpacking these feelings through counseling, coaching or treatment can help enormously with recovery. 
  3. You can pursue recovery and treatment while still in graduate school. A professional will be able to help you determine what intensity of treatment you need, but for some, treatment may be possible without taking time off school. In other words—do not put off treatment or recovery just because you can’t afford to take time off. Talk to a treatment provider about your needs and concerns before making any major decisions. 
  4. You have a right to privacy around your health, but supervisors or mentors in your academic life may be able to provide support if you feel comfortable communicating with them. Faculty and staff are here to support you in your academic journey, that includes your health and well-being. Opening up to a trusted mentor could provide the additional support and connection to resources you need to work towards recovery.   

Most importantly, treatment and recovery are possible and deserved. Take a few moments to reach out to a medical professional if you feel that your relationship with food and/or your body has gotten out of control.  

Additionally there are many free and low cost Body Image and Disordered Eating resources at Ohio State including: Nutrition CoachingCounseling and Consultation Services, and the Eating Concerns Consultation Team

Janele Bayless
Wellness Coordinator, Nuitrition Education
Student Wellness Center
Office of Student Life