Next week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.
Why should you care?
Because chances are, you or someone you know will struggle with an eating disorder at some point.
According to statistics from the Walden Center, 20 percent of college students have experienced an eating disorder, and 91 percent of female college students have attempted to control their weight through dieting. As college students, this is an issue which concerns us directly.
That being said, I want to share my story with you because I want you to understand how very destructive and painful eating disorders can be and why we need to start seriously combating them.
I have struggled with anorexia for nearly two years. It started out as a quest to eat healthier and lose a few extra pounds and — before I knew what was happening — I was restricting my diet, cutting out carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
I got to the point where I was only eating boiled vegetables. I lost close to 50 pounds and became emaciated. My friends began asking me if I was sick. My cheeks became sunken and my hair thinned.
My muscles began consuming themselves. Just walking around my house or climbing the stairs on my porch made my legs scream in protest. My body ached so much that lying in bed was painful.
This physical pain was nothing compared to what was in my head. Each day was a consuming haze of guilt and anxiety.
If I ate an apple or a muffin, I would spend the rest of the day hating myself. Months of starvation prevented me from thinking straight or concentrating on anything.
I spent hours planning menus, counting calories, thinking about food and scrolling through food websites, torturing myself by gazing at pictures of all the food I could no longer eat.
This was my life this past summer.
It is still my life right now.
It’s like having hell inside your own head and it’s what having an eating disorder feels like.
Eating disorders are a major issue in this country. In fact, statistics from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders show that at least 30 million people in the United States suffer from one.
That’s 10 percent of Americans.
What’s the cause of this epidemic?
There are many, but one of the biggest is the constant societal pressures on women to be thin.
The fashion industry, Victoria’s Secret and Sports Illustrated drill into our heads that “beautiful” bodies are lean, slender, and muscular. For example, when I was in high school, a substitute teacher told my class that “muscle looks better in a dress than fat does.”
I went to a therapist at one point to get help and she told me, “don’t worry about gaining weight back, I know you won’t ‘let yourself go.’ ”
In other words, returning to a healthy body weight equaled “letting myself go.”This is the exact mentality that drives women to starve themselves to death.
As a society, we need to shift the focus away from women’s bodies. We need to dispense with the swimsuit issues and the lingerie fashion shows and the endless magazine spreads about achieving perfect beach bodies. They are harmful and they are objectifying.
Other factors contribute to the development of an eating disorder. The disordered person may have an anxiety disorder, they may be an intense perfectionist or they might be enduring a personal trauma beyond their control which causes them to seek control in other areas of their life.
No matter how it develops, an eating disorder is ultimately a mental illness. This is where the stigma comes from. People often avoid talking about mental illness because it’s seen as embarrassing or shameful.
The taboo around eating disorders breeds misconceptions. To name just a few: “People don’t have eating disorders if they look normal,” “eating disorders can be cured by ‘just eating normally’ again” and “eating disorders are something people can control.”
These misconceptions need to be addressed because, as a society, we can only work toward changing something once we understand it.
First, a person does not have to be skeletal to have anorexia or bulimia. Just because someone looks “normal” does not mean they have a healthy relationship with food. Never assume that because you can’t see it, an eating disorder is not affecting someone.
If someone wants to hide their disorder from you, they will. Last summer, I was eating less than 500 calories a day and my best friends didn’t realize anything was wrong. They thought I was fine because I ate when I was around them.
But when I wasn’t with them, I didn’t eat.
Only when my cheeks started looking hollow did they start to suspect anything was wrong. By then, everything was wrong. My point: the best friend that you study with every day could be starving themselves and you won’t know unless they tell you.
If you find out that someone close to you has an eating disorder, don’t suggest that they try to eat normal portions again.
For someone with an eating disorder, returning suddenly to eating normally is impossible, both physically and mentally. Eating a normal portion can trigger excruciating guilt attacks that invade your every waking and sleeping moments.
For those of us with eating disorders, it is not a question of deciding to eat. The voice in our heads tells us that if we eat, we’ll get fat. Overcoming that voice can be nearly impossible — that’s why eating disorders are the most fatal of all mental illnesses.
Eating disorders are deadly and they are killing our friends, our mothers and our sisters. Yet, the silence is deafening.
So next week, I’m challenging you to speak up. If you see someone is not eating normally, or is losing weight rapidly or seems consumed with their body image, reach out to them.
Having an eating disorder can feel like being stranded on an island and watching as ships sail past without stopping to help. As college students, we are the future of our society, and we can lead the charge against eating disorders and the culture that fosters them.
If Zags really do help Zags, let’s start saying the words that are hard to say and listening to the words that are hard to hear.
Beatrice O’Campo is a staff writer.