Body image panel relates disordered eating stories

On Thursday night, students gathered in Henze Lounge for “Body Talk,” a forum on eating disorders moderated by Peer Health. The event was an effort to respond to the number of female students seeking help with eating disorders and over-exercising at the Health Center, which has tripled over the last year. “We want to highlight the fact that eating disorders contribute the highest mortality rate of any mental illness,” said Lysa Vola ’13, co-chair of Peer Health.

The forum consisted of four students who shared their experiences with eating disorders.  Izzy Griffin-Smith ’13 began the conversation by expressing that it was important to discuss body image issues despite their emotional gravity because eating disorders are usually “shrouded in silence.” Griffin-Smith explained that at the age of 15, she began struggling with an eating disorder that caused her to lose a third of her body weight in only 15 months. Her rapid and severe weight loss forced her to leave her high school tennis team and raised concerns about whether she could finish her exams. Nonetheless, Griffin-Smith pulled through that difficult period and enrolled at the College. With help from the Health Center, Griffin-Smith was able to regain much of the weight she had lost in high school. In her most valiant attempt, she gained eight pounds in six days through non-stop eating, an effort that shocked the nutritionists at the Health Center and that Griffin-Smith admittedly did not encourage students to undertake. “I think that the thing that really motivated me was realizing quite how much I was damaging my body and how that damage is irreversible,” Griffin-Smith said.

Blair Robinson ’13 followed Griffin-Smith in sharing her story. Robinson said that before developing an eating disorder, she remembered saying confidently to a group of friends, “I would so much rather be fat than have an eating disorder because that’s such a sign of weakness.” Her eating disorder developed four months later following an effort to “eat healthier.” Her healthy eating habits quickly became unhealthy and caused her skin to transform, generating extra hair in an effort to help insulate her body. Robinson’s eating disorder also destroyed many of her personal relationships. Fortunately, Robinson’s parents quickly became aware of the issue and enrolled her in the Cambridge Eating Disorder Center, a treatment program that serves as an alternative to hospitalization. There, she learned the triggers that set off her negative eating behaviors and was inspired through her counselor to think that “instead of being the best anorexic, [she could] be the best recoverer.” Like Griffin-Smith, Robinson realized that she was doing irreparable damage to her body, which endangered her chances of having a family in the future. She concluded by saying that she firmly believes that anorexia is a disease, although she continues to overcome it through the encouragement of friends and family.

Collin Peck-Gray ’15 next shared how his eating disorder developed from a need for control and a need to prove that he was not “weak” following his struggles at the onset of his college career with marijuana and drinking. “Addiction for me comes in many forms,” he said, “and I think that we all are capable of abusing anything – food, drugs, television, shopping, people – anything to distract us from our own fears.” He saw his eating disorder as indicative of an inability to accept himself as he was: Peck-Grey believes that his eating disorder was a manifestation of society’s pressure to be perfect.

Ebenezer Gyasi ’13 shared an alternate view of the pressure to lose weight, mentioning his childhood in Ghana. Under those conditions,  being heavy carried positive social correlations. He continued to gain weight in high school as a football player at Exeter. Gyasi experienced anxiety about his weight when his doctor predicted that he would weigh 300 pounds by age 15. Gyasi admitted that he initially had not understood why high-achieving, intelligent girls would feel the need to force their bodies to conform to societal pressures until a female student bravely spoke about it during  his senior year at Exeter. Gyasi’s own struggle with his weight also helped put the pressures these girls felt about their bodies into better perspective for him.

After the speakers shared their experiences, the audience discussed the common social practice of making self-deprecating jokes about one’s body as a means of humor and subsequent ways of channeling body negativity into body positivity. Others mentioned that given the high percentage of student-athletes at the College, the value of fitness in the community is heightened and even non-athletes feel a constant pressure to eat healthily and exercise frequently.

The discussion also offered ways to address this culture of disordered eating on campus. Griffin-Smith emphasized the importance of offering compliments based on personality rather than looks, as people with anorexia can turn even positive observations about their body into reasons to lose more weight. She also cautioned against telling people with eating disorders that they look too thin, which could trigger defensive attitudes. Instead, Griffin-Smith emphasized phrasing concerns more positively, perhaps by saying, “I’m concerned about you, and it would mean a lot to me if you went to check it out.”

Moving forward with attempts to encourage students to adopt healthier eating habits, Peer Health hopes to start a t-shirt campaign inspired by an episode of Glee in which characters wore plain white t-shirts that boldly broadcast an aspect of their bodies of which they were particularly proud. In addition, Griffin-Smith and Peer Health plan to initiate walk-in hours for students who are struggling with eating disorders or body image issues.

“I am hoping to have a walk-in hour at Peer Health starting next week so that students will have an opportunity to speak with me in private about any concerns [having] to do with eating disorders and body image issues,” Griffin-Smith said. “Although I have no professional experience in counseling, I believe that my personal experience allows me to offer valuable advice on eating disorder recovery and share with others how I am continuing to develop a less-troubled relationship with my body and eating.”

In addition, Peer Health encouraged the use of these discussions as an impetus for the continuation of such conversations, with the hope of perhaps encouraging participation in Thursday’s upcoming You Are Not Alone event. “These forums are a way to stay humble and vigilant and compassionate,” Peck-Gray said. “My biggest fear is about this is that this conversation ends here.”