You’ve probably seen them: the woman with the pencil-thin wrists; the man on the treadmill for hours; the friend who goes to the bathroom once too often. They are the most visible faces of eating disorders at Yale, but they are not the only ones.
As survivors, we know the myths about eating disorders by heart. We’ve heard that we, and others who have lived through the same experience as we have, are too nervous or too dramatic about our bodies. Friends have seen our behavior as just an unhealthy variant on dieting, a good lifestyle taken too far. And most often, we’ve been told that we’re perfectionists, who get A’s because we obsess over our homework and get sick because we obsess over our weight.
These narratives are true in part, but they only scratch the surface of reality. It’s hard to overstate how central the body becomes in the minds of people with eating disorders. Every emotion is translated into the language of food and weight: You feel thin when you’re happy, fat when you’re not. You want to be thin more than you want anything else, but you don’t know what thin means — you still want to be thinner when you can count your ribs, when you stop menstruating, when you know you can’t eat any less.
Why is this dangerous pattern of thoughts and behaviors so common? Many factors, biological and otherwise, conspire to cause eating disorders. American and other Western cultures encourage some behaviors that inch people along the road to illness. We are surrounded by images of thinness, exhortations to lose weight and negative judgments about food. The media invests weight with moral importance: We constantly hear the theme that good, educated people eat a certain kind of food and are thin, while only lazy or irrational people eat without worrying about the shape of their bodies.
These messages emerge in conversations and relationships between individuals — especially between young women — in many ways. Complaints about our own bodies hum around us on Yale’s campus. We hear women and men talk about their bodies as if they are useful only to attract others, or as if they are burdensome objects that we are obliged to make as fit and perfect as we can.
We are also all too accustomed to hearing friends and acquaintances judge others’ bodies and food behavior. Every remark on how much weight a friend has gained or lost, or how much or little another person is eating, makes us wonder if we were right to judge ourselves and our worth based on what the scale read that day.
Comments like these can come from a few places. Perhaps others know in the abstract that eating disorders exist, and even that they are exceptionally common in college, but don’t appreciate that the people around them may be survivors. Perhaps they understand that negative judgments about body shape and weight are dangerous for us, but make their comments without considering how much damage they can cause.
All of us can do better than that. The statistics are clear that eating disorders, like other forms of mental and physical illness, do not discriminate. They affect men and women, white people and people of color, people with and without other disabilities.
And we know from experience that their symptoms can be hard to detect. People who seem to be at a healthy weight, or “overweight,” can suffer from disordered eating as profoundly as people who look dangerously thin. People who seem to have healthy food behaviors can restrict, binge or purge in secret. And people who have survived eating disorders do not wear their histories on their sleeves. Often, we hesitate to speak because of stigma, shame or reluctance to seem that we are asking for special treatment.
You may think that you don’t know anyone with an eating disorder, but the statistics say that you almost certainly do. Show respect to that person, whether or not you know who they are. Don’t use the word “fat” as an insult. Don’t idolize thinness or venerate weight loss. Don’t tell us that our friends look bad because they’ve gained weight.
In sum, don’t believe that the way you eat, or the way your body looks, reflects on yourself or your value as a person. It doesn’t.
Katie Chockley is a junior in Silliman College. Amalia Skilton is a senior in Calhoun College. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com .