Eating Disorders on the Rise at Harvard

Bulimia, Anorexia Are Grounded in Need for Control, Search for Perfection

Sobbing uncontrollably, Madeline A. Whalen '90-93 arrived at Harvard University Health Services (UHS), led by her ex-boyfriend. He was sure that something was terribly wrong.

During her two-week stay at UHS last year, Whalen found time to draw a picture of the view from her hospital window. Above the Lowell House tower, she added a strange and striking image: the body of a thin, naked woman floating in the sky.

Not long after the completion of the drawing, the doctors told Whalen that she suffers from a serious eating disorder.

Whalen is not alone. A 1982 study conducted by researchers at the Murray Institute found that about 8 percent of women Harvard students were bulimic and about 23 percent engaged in binge-eating behavior.

And according to Assistant Professor of Psychology Todd F. Heatherton, who is currently analyzing data for a 1992 follow-up study, the incidence of eating disorders on campus is on the rise.

For a growing number of Harvard women, Whalen's plight echoes their own struggle with abnormal eating behaviors.

The week before her admittance to UHS, Whalen and her boyfriend broke up, her thesis was due and her father called to say that her younger brother was missing. In addition, Whalen had to give up her dancing classes, the activity she most enjoyed, so that she could earn money to pay her rent.

"My coping mechanisms weren't working," Whalen says. "I had no one to talk to and all my support systems were pulled out from under my feet."

"If that week hadn't happened, I could have gotten really sick. I could have died," she says. "I'm lucky to have figured that out before I left Harvard."

Whalen says she lived two separate lives at Harvard: a successful and active student, on the one hand, and a person struggling with repressed pain, on the other.

"I had been physically abused by my father until I was 21," Whalen says. "I was going to Harvard and had a boyfriend and never told anyone what was going on when I was home."

Whalen says she never made a conscious decision to diet. In fact, she had always been thin and often told people that she wanted to gain weight, she says.

Whalen says she would stand in line for food but, because she was slowly losing her appetite, would throw half of it away before sitting down.

"It got to the point where I wasn't eating for a couple of days at a time," Whalen says. "I got down to 88 pounds...Sometimes, I'd stand up and feel dizzy and light-headed."

Starvation began to affect her cognition, Whalen says. She described the sensation of "de-realization."