Putting Eating Disorders in Your Conversation

Name: Abigail Stern

Pronoun: She/Her/Hers

Major: Studio Art, 2020

Senior Abigail Stern is an art major, dedicated to making sure the Agnes Scott community is made aware of the eating disorders to better cater to the needs of the students attending. This has been a big problem within the community and lack of information circulated causes the issues to be an unseen, silent killer. Her senior seminar focuses on spreading that awareness. Her Campus spoke with them about her art piece, post-grad plans, and pet snakes. 

Abigail Stern: The majority of my body of work over these four years has been discovering more about eating disorders, like how we represent eating disorders in popular culture media.I want to sort of change the stereotypical way we perceive eating disorders visually. 

Her Campus: Beyond college, what are some of your aspirations? 

AS: I’m currently working at a non-traditional pre-school, so I definitely want to grow into an educator and learn more about non-traditional education styles cause I think it’s really cool. I probably want to be a pet owner one day. I want to own a snake so badly.  

HC: What kind of snake? 

AS: I just want something really basic like a corn snake or a ball python. 

HC: Has art always been your passion?  

AS: Yeah, I definitely was interested in art from a young age, but I never thought of myself as having the potential to truly be an artist. I always enjoyed art, but I came to school doing International Relations so I did like a really big major change a couple of years in. I just didn’t think that I could do art and be an artist, but the good thing about being an artist is that anyone can be an artist. 

HC: Do you think the belief that art is not a sufficient degree choice had anything to do with your decision? 

AS: Yeah, I think that was definitely a part of it since it is our cultural perception of art. My high school experience didn’t really encourage me to pursue art as a career. No one was talking about following your passion, it was never said to me. 

HC: Any other passions? 

AS: I did come in as International Relations because I really like International Relations. I studied abroad in Mexico last semester which was awesome. Learning about different cultures and attempting to learn Spanish through immersion was really cool. I love to write music and cook as well. 

HC: What led you to focus on eating disorders as a theme for your mural? 

AS: I’m making a mural for my senior thesis about recovery on campus. This was inspired by the fact that I’ve suffered from eating disorders for most of my life, I know a lot of people who have also suffered from eating disorders. So, as part of my thesis, I actually interview quite a few people, both current and past students who have suffered from eating disorders on campus to contextualize how that suffering occurs here specifically. I interviewed many people to get different perspectives but it’s very prevalent on campus and very dangerous. Eating disorders are the number one cause of death for mental illnesses. It is very dangerous and trivialized and the biggest thing is on the ASC campus we never talk about how they exist in a public sphere. Have you ever heard someone say eating disorder on campus? 

HC: No. 

AS: If you ask anyone within the past five years if they’ve heard the phrase eating disorder mentioned in a public context on campus, no one will say yes. This is because there’s a huge silence about this mental health problem. I’m not really sure why. I’ve talked with Dean Tomiko and while she was the Director of the Wellness Center it was part of the conversation so at some point it was something that people were caring about. I’m not sure when people stopped caring about it, but there are no resources and it’s not even part of the conversations on campus which is the biggest issue I want to break with my art. I want to put it out there that eating disorders exist, people care, people are fighting and you can recover. All of the positive messaging that exists that isn’t circulated on campus. 

Image via Abigail Stern

HC: I’m sure you had an original outcome for the mural. How has it manifested from that to the mural you are painting now? 

AS: Over the summer I was working with Yehimi Cambrón on her mural, Monuments Our Immigrant Mothers,  across the street Monuments Are Immigrant Mothers. It’s across from the Dairy Queen, it’s gorgeous. It’s a huge painting of three immigrant women. I was there with her, painting and getting to soak in her wisdom. She’s an amazing artist and she was telling me that I could do a mural and that I was capable. She told me to tell people, that’s important. My professors let me know that it was something I could do for my thesis. So, I started brainstorming about what type of message I wanted to tell. The space they offered me was taken into account as well, as it inspired me. It’s a secret staircase on campus that only other art students know about. It’s really cool because eating disorders are kind of a secretive illness, a secretive space. It’s like a staircase that has the potential to fully envelop you which is a cool feature of the space. I worked with images of bodies and women, which led me to do this goddess figure where her stomach is on the floor so you can like to sit on her and her arms wrap around to the back walls. She’ll basically be holding that space, like hugging you. Her hair is going to have affirmations that are reflections of the interview I had with the people on campus, then my own personal affirmations.

Image via Abigail Stern

 

HC: What’s that centerpiece? Is that like her heart carved out or something? 

AS: Yeah, I was trying to find a way to depict what it felt like to have an eating disorder and a lot of times I would land on like cutting a hole out of the body. It just felt right, so working with bodily distortion was really big for me this semester. I want the mural to be someone who can hold you and tell you it’s going to be ok. She’s creating a space for students with eating disorders where they can come and be comforted, that’s kinda the idea. 

HC: You said you didn’t think Agnes was doing enough with promoting eating disorders. What do you think they could do to confront the issue? 

AS: Currently, nothing is being done. There are no pamphlets in the wellness center and I spoke with Dean Tomiko about that, thus far she’s been very receptive. Hopefully, within the next semester, we should be seeing more informational papers around campus. On a fundamental level, people need to put the word out there, to just say “eating disorder” to acknowledge that it exists. If someone is talking about mental illnesses on campus, eating disorders need to be included since they’re always excluded. I think that orientation should include screening for eating disorders. Do you remember having to do suicide prevention and alcohol awareness things during orientation? 

HC: Yes, I remember having an info session in the gym. 

AS: Eating disorders need to be a part of that information session. Like, how to spot the symptoms of an eating disorder, why it’s unsafe and how to take care of yourself. Acknowledging that it exists, having materials that are educational, having it be a part of orientation, and having connections with the community. There is a lot of support within the community. You should be able to refer students to a therapist that is eating disorder certified, because it is really different from how you treat eating disorders versus other mental illnesses because it’s more of an addiction. Apparently, [Agnes Scott] used to have an eating disorder certified therapist who could do screenings. That would be essential as well as having people come to campus to give talks. Another thing that would be really great, which would be hard to pull off is having a support group on campus. It’s really helpful to build a community about this type of stuff. These are just a couple of my recommendations for things that should be implemented. People on our campus are at high risk, women are traditionally at a much higher risk than men and also trans and queer people are at four times higher risk. 

HC: Why do you think eating disorders aren’t seen as an important issue on campus or just in the news? 

AS: The biggest problem is dieting culture, which is a huge thing on campus. People think dieting is ok and that makes people think eating disorder behaviors are ok. It’s sort of difficult to explain since our whole country is in a diet culture where basically we think that fundamentally, eating is bad. We always think that there are good foods and bad foods. That’s not really true, it’s just that everything should be eating in moderation but we have such an idea that there are bad foods. Basically, on campus this happens because people will be dieting because they want to change how their bodies look. I mean, it’s one thing to diet legitimately for a health reason, a personal choice that I understand. But, when you’re constantly dieting to change your body with needing to lose weight, it’s unhealthy and it’s bad for you. Because so many people, faculty, staff, and students’ diet it’s normal. It’s normal to skip meals, to eat certain food and not other food, or not eat carbs, or to work out excessively. Since these things are a normal part of our culture, eating disorders tend to slip under the radar. People don’t really know why it happens. 

HC: Were your friends any help or did they just make it worse? 

AS: When I first came here, I fell into a group of people who were in diet culture. I just remember this one girl who was so beautiful but she always spoke very negatively about her body and doing very excessive things in the gym. It really impacted me because I would see this very beautiful girl saying that she needed to lose weight and it was a very unhealthy mentality. This was really hard for me, but the longer I was here I encountered a lot of great friends, that I still have today, who cared about their health and some who dealt with eating disorders but are in recovery. That has helped a lot. 

This mural is meant to inspire students to bring more attention to as well as confront the illness at hand. Stern said, “My project proposal is to create a mural about eating disorder recovery. The space is a “secret” dana staircase, which mirrors the secretive nature of this illness. As a campus, we haven’t even yet acknowledged that its a problem and begun to talk about it, so hopefully my mural can be one of the first steps in this process. I  also talked to President Zak who was very kind and allows me to educate her about this being an issue, so hopefully, I can continue advocating in the administration as well as painting this mural side by side. I am thankful for this opportunity and want to use it to help more than just me, I hope I can give a voice to all those suffering on campus and begin the community-wide effort to recover.”