Over 70 students gathered in Sudler Hall on Wednesday evening to listen to five of their peers share their experiences with eating disorders, body image and mental health.
The event, titled “Relationships with Food: Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating,” was hosted by Mind Matters, a student organization dedicated to raising awareness of mental health issues within the Yale community. After a brief introduction by event organizers Emma Goodman ’19 and Elizabeth Zordani ’18, the five panelists took turns sharing their stories. The students talked about how cultural and family backgrounds shaped their experiences, as well as the steps they took in order to come to terms with their disorders and seek help.
Panelist Jessica Magro ’18, who spoke about her experience with anorexia in high school, said that a variety of factors contributed to her unhealthy relationship with food, such as struggling with ADHD and depression and setting high standards for herself. She found friends in the online pro-ana community — people who embrace anorexia as a positive lifestyle choice rather than a dangerous illness. Only when her health began seriously deteriorating and upon the encouragement of a friend did she decide to seek professional help and enter a recovery program.
“Despite all of these terrible things that were happening to me, I was so happy within my illness,” Magro said. “This was an easy way for me to have an aspect of my life that I was the best at — something that I could control, when everything else about my neurochemistry didn’t let me control things.”
Isaak Cuenco-Reyes ’18, another panelist, shared their perspective living with body dysmorphia — a condition they describe as a psychological rejection of one’s own body — and the ways in which this relates to disordered eating. They also commented on how being undocumented, queer and low-income at Yale had shaped their habits and experience.
Cuenco-Reyes highlighted the importance of recognizing how disordered eating and mental health are intersectional, and that a condition may manifest differently given an individual’s personal background.
“I’m learning to create a system of checks and balances on myself instead of tying my self-worth to the opinions of other people,” Cuenco-Reyes said.
Max Vinetz ’18, another panelist, spoke of being extremely aware of his weight and how he fit in among his peers, even from a young age. He said that he experimented with excessive diet control during high school and college, a habit which sometimes affected his relationship with family and friends. Vinetz acknowledged that a large part of the challenge for people struggling with eating disorders is overcoming feelings of inadequacy, recognizing that it “takes a ton of effort to say it’s just okay to be myself.”
Panelist Lillian Foote ’17 also described how her anorexia influenced her relationship with family and friends. A high jumper on her high school track team and a former varsity high jumper for Yale, Foote said that she initially began managing her diet to become a better athlete, but her habits quickly devolved into an unhealthy obsession with portion control.
Foote emphasized the importance of tough love from her parents, who pushed her to enter psychotherapy and talk to a nutritionist. Both of these strategies helped her better understand the factors leading to her eating disorder and ultimately start her on the road to recovery, Foote said.
Panelist Dhruv Nandamudi ’18 noted the importance of recognizing that eating disorders are enemies disguised as friends. He encouraged audience members to reach out to friends without any expectations or preconceived opinions.
“The truest and surest way to break silence is to ensure that you’ll accept the individual you’re trying to reach in the absence of any kind of judgment,” Nandamudi said. “The simple virtue of unconditional acceptance is the rarest thing. If you provide an atmosphere of that, you will have those in pain express their pain to you.”
During a short Q&A session at the end of the event, the students also shared parting advice with the audience. Magro underscored the positive impact of seeking professional help, acknowledging that the process can be frightening. Foote added that for someone struggling with disordered eating, sharing with a trusted friend can also be a very positive step in unloading some of the burden and making it less daunting to seek professional help later on.
According to Mind Matters co-president Audrey Luo ’17, this is the first event the organization has held that focuses on eating disorders. To recruit panelists, Zordani said that Mind Matters reached out to people who represented a spectrum of different experiences.
“We’ve been wanting to do a panel based on eating disorders for a while, mostly because they are pretty under-discussed on this campus,” Goodman said. “Compared to anxiety disorders and depression, [eating disorders] are something people don’t know much about in terms of health, social and academic consequences.”
Earlier this semester, Mind Matters also hosted a student panel exploring the intersection of race and mental health.