National Eating Disorders Awareness Week Invites GW Students to Speak Up

Campus events include keynote speaker Brian Cuban, body image fair, free yoga and scale trashing.

Laura Porter Holds up schedule of events
Laura Porter, a senior in the School of Media and Public Affairs, is president of SPEAK GW, a student organization that promotes eating disorder awareness. (William Atkins/GW Today)
February 25, 2015

By Lauren Ingeno

When Laura Porter began purging her food and binge drinking as a college freshman, her friends told her she was “out of control.”

No one, she said, ever asked, “Are you doing OK?”

“I really longed for someone to ask how I was doing,” said Ms. Porter, now a George Washington University senior. “The alcohol and the eating disorder were just symptoms of an underlying issue, and for me that was depression and anxiety.”

She wanted to shout, “I need help.” Instead, she let her thinning body speak for her, until her battle with alcoholism and bulimia eventually landed her in the hospital.

Ms. Porter entered a residential treatment center in 2011. There, surrounded by a community of women also struggling with eating disorders, she finally had the support system that she hadn’t found in college.

Now, as president of the student organization SPEAK GW (Students Promote Eating Disorder Awareness and Knowledge), Ms. Porter aims to help others who are struggling know that they are not alone.

“SPEAK is a facilitator, helping students get the services that they need,” she said. “At the same time, we emphasize that people should not be ashamed to talk about eating disorders. They affect everyone. It’s not a character defect. It’s not vanity. It’s an illness.”

Ms. Porter and SPEAK GW are spearheading a weeklong series of on-campus events that begin Monday, as part of National Eating Disorders Awareness (NEDA) Week. The events at GW, themed “More Than a Body: Celebrate You,” aim to raise awareness about campus resources available to students and to spark a dialogue about promoting a healthy body image. It is co-sponsored by the Center for Student Engagement, the Colonial Health Center, the Milken Institute School of Public Health and the Student Association.

Wednesday evening will feature a keynote speech from Brian Cuban, author of the best-selling book “Shattered Image: My Triumph Over Body Dysmorphic Disorder.” The book chronicles the lawyer and activist’s lifelong struggles with drug addition, bulimia and anorexia. He speaks regularly about the fat-shaming he faced as a child and the male eating disorder stigma.

As an undergraduate at Penn State University, Mr. Cuban became fixated on what he considered his ugly appearance. He lost more than 100 pounds during his freshman year. He started a repetitive cycle of running 10 miles a day, binging on junk food and then purging.

“Eating disorders affect both males and females,” said Melissa Napolitano, a psychologist and associate professor of prevention and community health. “He really brings a face to disordered eating and may help reduce some of the stigma in talking about it. That’s the beauty of the week—it will help show that there is a community of people talking about the same topic and offering support at GW.”

Breaking the Silence

Up to 24 million U.S. men and women suffer from an eating disorder, but only 10 percent receive treatment, according to the National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders.

Once terrified to talk about her struggles with weight, Ms. Porter—a bubbly and poised 23-year-old—is upfront about her past.

“I like to think that SPEAK has a ripple effect,” she said. “By sharing my story, it helps others realize they’re not alone, and then they share their own stories.”

After a year and a half of treatment, she returned to GW in spring 2013, which she calls her toughest semester.

“A lot of people who I thought were my friends didn’t stick around,” she said. “Being sober in college while recovering from an eating disorder is really hard.”

Seeking to re-create the sense of community she experienced at her treatment facility, Ms. Porter re-launched SPEAK GW the following fall with help from administrators in the Division of Student Affairs. The group had once existed on campus but had been inactive for a number of years.

Her favorite part of the student organization is hearing from members about how SPEAK has made a positive impact on their lives. She is hoping that this week will not only help students who may have body image issues reach out for support, but that it also will encourage friends to ask, “Are you doing OK?” 

“I wanted to do something to give back. SPEAK helps me to give something to others that I felt like I didn’t have,” Ms. Porter said. “It gives people a home.”

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week Events:

Monday, Feb. 23
NEDA Week Kickoff and Student Social | 6-7:30 p.m. | Marvin Center, Colonial Health Center
Join SPEAK GW for an informal social meet-and-greet with Nancy Cass, the eating disorder services coordinator from the University Counseling Center (UCC).

Tuesday, Feb. 24 
SPEAK Information Table | 12-2 p.m. | Marvin Center, 1st Floor Elevators
Stop by to talk to SPEAK GW members and grab some free NEDA Week 2015 gear.

Free Relaxation Yoga | 12-1 p.m. | Lerner Health and Wellness Center
Enjoy the peace and calm found in this yoga session geared to relax and clear your mind and body.

Wednesday, Feb. 25 
More Than a Body: Celebrate You Fair | 11 a.m.-2 p.m. | Marvin Center, Great Hall
Colonial Health Center representatives and area community resource providers host a fair focusing on health and wellness, body image and self-care. Drop by for information, giveaways and a free chair massage.

An Evening with Brian Cuban | 7:30-9 p.m. | Milken Institute School of Public Health
Best-selling author and advocate Brian Cuban will join GW students faculty and staff for an engaging discussion about living with and recovering from eating disorders, drug addiction and Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Free copies of Brian's book will be available to students. Register for the free event.

Thursday, Feb. 26
“Beauty Before Age” Film Screening | 7:30-9 p.m. | Multicultural Student Services Center, Room 209
Timothy Kaine and UCC Eating Disorder Services Coordinator Nancy Cass host a screening of “Beauty Before Age” and lead a discussion with students about body image in the GW and LGBTQIA communities.

Friday, Feb. 27
Trash the Scale | 12-2 p.m. | Marvin Center, 1st Floor Elevators
Promote the importance of focusing on health, not a number, by throwing away your scale. Limited number of scales will be provided for students to graffiti.

Related Stories

Eating Disorder Specialist Joins University Counseling Center

February 19, 2014
New staff clinician provides on-campus support and education about disordered eating and body image.