It will not surprise any reader that eating disorders are present at Yale. What surprises me is the remarkable silence on the subject and the institution-wide lack of introspection about why our community has a higher rate of disordered eating, as well as what we could do to change that.
Most Yale students have not and will not ever suffer from an eating disorder. But everyone in our community almost certainly knows at least one person who has. In this way, eating disorders touch all our lives and impact our community as a whole.
Eating disorders are linked to depression and obsessive thinking and behavior that can be stifling to the people who suffer from them; in this way, eating disorders drain life force from our campus, not only preventing us from being the healthy, balanced community we could be, but also keeping us from realizing our collective creative potential.
But we don’t talk about them.
The great irony about the taboo treatment of eating disorders is that so often their physical manifestations make them a visible presence. I am by no means suggesting that we can judge a skinny girl or boy as anorexic just because of his or her build, but I firmly believe that the signs and symptoms of those suffering with eating disorders and disordered eating are visible in everyday campus life.
We live together, eat together and engage with each other constantly. The people in our community suffering from anorexia, bulimia or other forms of disordered eating are our friends and roommates, our classmates and colleagues. Yet as a collective community we don’t seem to acknowledge the sufferers in our midst or wonder why they might be suffering in higher numbers here.
Women are certainly not the only Yale students suffering from eating disorders, but national statistics show that most of the people who suffer from eating disorders and disordered eating are women, so discussion of gender on campus seems relevant (even if it fails to explain our community’s silence about eating disorders in every case).
Yale is well-practiced at producing Yale men. The concept of the Yale woman, however, dates back only 40 years. While the definition of the Yale woman remains in flux today, a foundational piece of that still-plastic definition extends back to 1969, the year of coeducation, when the first class of Yale women was characterized in a New York Times Magazine article as the “the female version of Nietzsche’s ubermensch.”
While Yale’s women (and men) are expected to be extraordinary, The New York Times’ observation that Yale’s women are expected to be naturally or effortlessly so has dangerous implications. Rather than outwardly expressing stress or losing the semblance of control, women can be forced to turn inward to manage anxiety and reaffirm a grasp over the impossible balancing act of undergraduate life. Striving to appear innately perfect can mean, in the extreme, denying the body sustenance it needs because it means having power over something, anything.
The “Preseason Scouting Report” e-mail, which was circulated at the opening of this school year and described the bodies of freshman women, emphasized the pressure that this campus can sometimes exert on its women to do it all. And to look hot doing it. The message that the e-mail sent (even if it was sent it jest) is that a Yale woman’s physique will garner her more attention than her talents, which she must prove day after day, like her male counterparts, just to tread water in this intense climate.
Of course Yale does not cause eating disorders. But the often type-A, perfection-seeking women who gain admission to Yale can be prone to the kind of controlling behavior that can manifest itself in an eating disorder, and combining this predisposition with a culture that expects that level of personal control can be dangerous. Further compounding that with practices that publicly comment on women’s appearances alone can seem reaffirming.
This is not to paint a portrait of our women as helpless victims of Old Blue misogyny. I will not strip our women of credit — they are tenacious, vivacious and spirited — and I will not discredit the Yale community that has been so good to me and to so many of us. Rather, I suggest that the our campus’ culture is exerting pressure that can be a contributing factor to anorexic or bulimic behavior in its women and yet does not acknowledge the suffering that results.
Something has to give. Being more open as a community about the problem and having our administration acknowledge that members of its student body are suffering is a start. For example, I cannot recall an e-mail sent from any administrative official, whether it be a dean, a master or even University Health Services that so much as contained the words “eating disorder.” The University must evaluate how to improve the visibility and accessibility of current resources and determine what additional services and programs are needed.
Finally, empowering our community of friends and roommates, classmates and colleagues to help those suffering to get support and treatment will go a long way toward making our campus a healthier place.
Elizabeth Deutsch is a junior in Morse College.