It started in elementary school, the week we had to complete an obstacle course for gym class. I was struggling to climb over a barrier when the boy behind me yelled, “Hurry up! God, you’re such a fat cow!” Then he mooed until I gave up and let him take his turn. That was the first time I’d ever hated my body. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t realized I was chubby, but I’d never loathed myself for it.
The summer before middle school, I had a growth spurt, which stretched me out and made me a lot skinnier. When school started, I immediately felt a difference in how people treated me. They would compliment my looks, telling me or my mother how pretty I was. The attractive kids, who had never before wanted me as part of their crowd, started talking to me. Suddenly, I was in. So when I started putting weight back on, I freaked out. I gave up sugars, fats, carbs, meat and dairy and told everyone I was a vegan so they’d stop asking suspicious questions. At first the diet worked, but then my body adjusted and I started gaining weight again. So I stopped eating almost entirely. I would eat one plum during the day, or one bite of a cracker, and then run up and down the stairs for an hour. Soon I felt exhausted all the time, too weak to run the stairs anymore or even to perform simple tasks. After a month, I broke and started eating again.
Yet I couldn’t get rid of the guilt I felt for lacking the willpower to keep myself from eating, and, unsurprisingly, I was regaining weight. Then I got the stomach flu and couldn’t keep anything down. I lost about 10 pounds in a week. That’s how I discovered bulimia. At first, it was wonderfully liberating. I could eat anything I wanted and however much of it I wanted because I knew I was just going to get rid of it all later. But after a year of making myself throw up nightly, my throat was constantly sore from stomach acid, my knuckles were all torn up and scarred from scraping against my teeth, and I didn’t even look skinny.
The sad thing is that I’m not the only one to suffer from an eating disorder. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that more than 11 million Americans, both women and men, have eating disorders. In addition, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, yet only one in 10 people will get treatment. They are difficult to recognize because sufferers don’t necessarily look sick and the disorders are surrounded in shame and secrecy, making it hard for people to seek help. Complete recovery is tricky too; those that receive treatment are at risk for relapse throughout their lives.
The NEDA defines eating disorders as “extreme emotions, attitudes and behaviors surrounding food and weight,” which include the recognized disorders anorexia, bulimia, compulsive exercising and binge eating. Nobody is sure why they start, though eating disorders are most common in cultures that value thinness. There also seems to be some genetic component. Eating disorders don’t necessarily stem from body image issues – they can have a number of different triggers.
How can you tell if someone has or is at risk for an eating disorder? Strange relationships with food or exercise and obsessions with weight and body image are reasons to at least check in. Ask how the person is doing and mention that if they’re ever looking for someone to chat with, you’re there, as are the nutritionist and therapists at the Health Center, where they can go for confidential consultations. Even if they don’t open up to you, reminding them that they have people who care about their wellbeing, who will support them if they decide to get help, is valuable. If you suspect something serious, talk to a trusted authority at the school – a therapist, a dean, a professor. Tell them your concerns and see if they can team up with you to offer your friend support. Ultimately though, you aren’t going to be able to make a person who doesn’t want help get better. It has to be that person’s decision to seek help. The best thing you can do is to remind them that it’s there, should they desire it.
In terms of dealing with eating disorders generally, we need to change the culture at Williams that values appearance above all else. You can help by treating your body with respect and modeling appropriate eating behavior. Little things like not discussing other people’s or your own appearance really can go a long way.