It starts with a feeling. Sometimes you swear you can tell when your jeans feel just the tiniest bit tighter. Soon that feeling spreads to your entire body, making it nearly impossible even to move without cringing. Before you know it you have become a kind of princess who is not only aware of, but fears that tiny pea.
Issues with disordered eating run the gamut from distorted body image and disordered eating habits to full-blown anorexia and bulimia. The disorders affect both women and men. Warning signs include severe restriction of diet, drastic weight loss, and obsessive preoccupation with weight and body image. These things are the red flags and loudspeakers of eating disorders. The numbers behind them are harsh: as many as 10 percent of college women suffer from a clinical or nearly clinical eating disorder, including 5.1 percent who suffer from bulimia nervosa. Studies indicate that by their first year of college, 4.5 to 18 percent of women and 0.4 percent of men have a history of bulimia and that as much as 1 percent of females between the ages of 12 and 18 have anorexia. Ten to 25 percent of all women suffering from anorexia will die as a direct result of the disorder.
February 23-27 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The events planned for the week represent a the collaborative work of a number of different campus groups — including ECHO (Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach), Mind Matters and the Women’s Center — to bring as much information and as many different perspectives as possible to the center of campus discussion. The goal of all of the events is to deepen our understanding of eating disorders and to give faces to the piles of statistics that, while vital to understanding how widespread the problem of eating disorders is, can overwhelm and obscure the personal and constant sufferings of people who desperately want to escape their own minds and bodies. Events include a Master’s Tea with Marya Hornbacher, a survivor of anorexia and bulimia and author of the memoir “Wasted” and a panel of professionals who deal with eating disorders in different capacities. Later in the week there will be a talk with Ellen Fisher Turk, a professional photographer who specializes in phototherapy for trauma victims and women dealing with eating disorders.
Just as important as professional speakers are the voices of everyone on campus. Real people suffer from these disorders, and they have real and negative effects on those people’s lives. Free brochures in health clinics, after school specials, and tales of woe and of recovery always run the risk of becoming just another poignant story that doesn’t reflect anyone’s real life. The names are always changed and the characters are always fictionalized: we don’t know them, don’t see them and, consequently, don’t understand them.
The problem is complicated by the fact that many of our friends, who we are certain suffer nonetheless, seem to defy categorization. Perhaps their body images seem fine, but when they are under stress they refuse to eat, claiming they don’t have time. Perhaps they claim that they are simply picky, that the food offered does not appeal to them. These facts beg the question: what is an eating disorder? Is it only something that’s been diagnosed? Do you have one if you only eat salad but not if you eat bread too? What if you maintain a healthy weight despite your eating habits? Yale is a high-pressure environment, a place defined by categories, groups, actions and products. Part of what makes eating disorders so dangerous, however, is that nearly all of the damage is done in the process. By the time a person is diagnosed, months or years of unhealthy behavior may have passed.
So what is to be done? A hidden problem and fallible solutions do not exactly reassure the troubled soul. Healing, too, is a process, and not one that can be easily standardized. In recent years, however, there has been a surge of dialogue about eating disorders that has catapulted the problem into the public eye and inspired diverse and creative responses. The events planned for Eating Disorders Awareness Week intend to honor that creativity. The week of talks, forums and panel discussions will culminate on Friday night, after Ellen Fisher Turk’s talk, with “Unleashed: An Evening of Creative Indulgence.” Come to the Women’s Center and bring art, music, poetry, performance, yourself, your friends, and everything you love about them and you. There is no theme and no pressure; this event is intended to highlight the most fundamental ways in which we express ourselves and to give everyone a chance to speak through their art.
The realities of eating disorders are staggering and disturbing. The numbers, however, are only one part of the picture. Eating Disorders Awareness week is about real people, real perceptions, real experiences and real voices. We don’t care if you scream, shout, cry, laugh, stamp your feet or sit with your hands in your lap. We just want to get people talking.