Perched on the edge of the stage in Fisk Hall, ten volunteers pinch their noses and breathe through drinking straws. These girls are on a brief “air diet,” prescribed by Northwestern psychologist Sarah H. Levi.
Levi kicked off Northwestern’s first Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAW) on Monday with the “Pledge to Love Your Genes” event and the Great Jeans Giveaway, which continues through Friday.
Levi used the “air diet” to illustrate the effects of limiting basic needs like food. She asked the volunteers how they felt after breathing only through the straws for a minute or two. The volunteers reported that they felt “anxious” and craved more air. They couldn’t focus on anything except breathing. Levi said dieters similarly feel distracted, obsessive and uneasy.
While the event was aimed at sorority women, NEDAW is a campus-wide campaign to tell truths about weight issues. The campaign, part of the 21st annual National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, encourages Northwestern students, faculty and administrators to “be comfortable in your genes.”
The NEDAW slogan argues that body size and shape is determined significantly by genetics. Levi said people should embrace their genes and get rid of jeans that no longer fit.
“We hold onto jeans, hoping that one day we’ll fit into them,” said Levi, the coordinator of Northwestern’s Eating Concerns Assessment and Treatment Team, which is part of Counseling and Psychological Services and which sponsored the event. “We want people to get rid of them…and shed society’s expectation on what size should be.”
Weinberg senior Kathy Lin, chair of the CAPS Student Advisory Board, said she was excited to raise awareness because eating disorders are present on campus.
“I wouldn’t say it’s more prevalent [than at other schools],” she said, “but I do know it’s a problem.”
CAPS developed NEDAW after receiving frequent requests from sororities for speakers specializing in eating disorders, Levi said.
Panhellenic Association President Brittney Anne Bahlman said she wanted to involve sorority women because, as about 40 percent of Northwestern’s female population, they’re a big audience.
The Panhellenic Association collaborated with CAPS not “because it’s sorority women who are affected, but because it’s women in general who are affected,” she said.
For the Great Jeans Giveaway, cardboard drop boxes are sprinkled around the Chicago and Evanston campuses for denim donations. Levi said that ECAT and CAPS hope to collect 1,000 pairs of jeans this week for local service agencies, Brown Elephant Resale shops and the Evanston Women’s Board of Northwestern University Settlement Association.
Levi said she hoped the program would build a cross-campus community at Northwestern while starting a conversation about eating concerns.
According to Levi, 91 percent of women on college campuses have dieted or are dieting. Only 5 percent of those diets, she said, will succeed.
“A lot of people think that [weight’s] something you can change,” Levi said. “Bottom line is that you can’t.”
Levi said Monday night that she encourages women to approach health without considering weight.
The three other speakers supported this notion. Dietician and nutritionist Oehme Soule, CAPS psychologist David Shor and sports medicine physician Jon Englund spoke at Monday’s event about healthy eating, men’s body image beliefs, and exercise.
Lin said she was happy with the “diversity” of perspectives and topics covered.
“I was really pleased,” Lin said. “They made very interesting attempts to stray from what is the norm of education in terms of eating disorders.”
Emma Alter-Reid, a freshman theater major, said focusing on unhealthy aspects of dieting and exercise was unhelpful.
“I thought that they were giving off the message that exercise was bad for you and that any diet would just make you more fat than you already are,” she said.
Alter-Reid said she hoped that more information on healthy dieting, eating or exercise methods would be included.
Levi said she hopes NEDAW will become an annual event and in the future, can be widened to include a larger audience, including men.