Richson: Recognizing an eating disorder


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There is no preoccupation more potent than a preoccupation with food. Food is everywhere, and somewhat rightfully so — unlike other substances with addictive qualities, we literally need food to survive. Society’s relationship food has become increasingly distorted over the years, as we are bombarded by conflicting messages in the media: Eat this Big Mac, but look like a supermodel. Ready, go.

Recently, Yale University came under fire for student Frances Chan’s allegations that she was threatened with medical leave if she did not gain weight. Subjected to weigh-ins and counseling sessions by the university, the student engaged in junk-food binges and became distressed when she could not gain the amount of weight the university demanded.

At 90 pounds, the student certainly would be considered underweight by many people. However, one of the most crippling characteristics of an eating disorder is an intense fear of gaining weight. Weight gain will be avoided at any cost, without regard for the toll an eating disorder takes on the body, including heart problems and various nutritional deficiencies. The student in question had none of these characteristics, and the very doctrine Yale attempted to force on her very well could have led her to develop a severe obsession with food that would catalyze into an eating disorder that never should have been in the first place.

As someone who has struggled with disordered eating for the better part of a decade that snowballed back and forth between a certified eating disorder, I know that an obsession with food and its effects on the body is a difficult cognitive pattern to break once you’ve started down the road. The numbers attached to calories and pounds become your overenthusiastic ally or your gravest secret. Nothing about Chan’s case seems to indicate that she has an eating disorder, particularly considering she states she has always been a small girl. What’s even worse is that the university’s action indicates the strides that need to be made in recognizing an eating disorder; it often has much more to do with thought and hidden action rather than physicality.

Even in the case that Chan does have an eating disorder, the last thing a person with an eating disorder needs is to be patronized. Whether they have label for it in their vocabulary, the chokehold body image and food has on people is pervasive and overwhelming. And like any compulsion or addiction, everyone with an eating disorder started somewhere. There was a definitive moment in passing when a switch flipped, but the person thought, “This is just for now; I can stop at any time.”

But the numbers persist, and before you know it, your eating disorder takes priority over everything you once cared about, and that isn’t an exaggeration. Anything you might be talented at has an asterisk attached to it. “Yes, but, if only I looked like this …” Anything that goes wrong can somehow be attributed to your appearance, which you perceive as infinitely flawed. When you have an eating disorder, you yearn for an unattainable future as the present seeps into tomorrow. And all you can fixate on is how many calories are in your bowl of granola.

I am pleased with the concern for mental health, and its intersection with physical health, in this case. But far more education is still needed.

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