Eating Disorders: A Conversation that Needs to Happen

[Author's Note: I use the term “eating disorder” to encompass different shades of disordered eating and eating disorders]

In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (February 22-28, 2015) The Wellness Lounge took on the task of hosting a couple of events centered around discussing eating disorders. The session held on Thursday night in Loose Lounge included a panel of students who have either personally experienced or knew of someone who had an eating disorder. The event began with the panelists sharing their stories, and moved on to open floor discussion about anything eating disorder related.

A number of important topics were touched on. One of my favorites was: what is the most common misconception about eating disorders? The panelists unanimously agreed that eating disorders can and do manifest themselves in anybody regardless of appearance. The stereotypical image of someone with an eating disorder is a scarily thin, fragile-looking woman. While there are individuals who have eating disorders and look like this, many individuals who have eating disorders do not fit this image. There are three sub-categories of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. However, it is rarely the case that someone fits cleanly into one of these categories; eating disorders/disordered eating is a spectrum. EDNOS, or eating disorder not otherwise specified, is another category of eating disorders to classify those who do not fit cleanly in the three categories listed above. With a flurry of so many different possible combinations, it is impossible to “peg” someone as suffering from an eating disorder by simply looking at them.

Among other things that were discussed, the topic that seemed to consistently reappear in the conversation was: what can we do as students and as an institution in regards to helping those suffering from eating disorders? Let me interject here and say that it seemed almost ironic to me that eating disorders are such a prevalent and serious issue on college campuses, yet there is barely any discussion about them. Did you know that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness? Furthermore, 40 percent of women college students have eating disorders. This means almost 1 in 2 women you know in college are currently dealing with an eating disorder. This statistic does not even take into account disordered eating. This event was the first and only event that I have attended during my 3 years at Grinnell College that directly focused on the issue of eating disorders. This is not okay. This is not near sufficient. The suggestion I posed to the group to change, or even to start the dialogue regarding eating disorders was to monitor your own behavior and actions.

Do you engage in body shaming? Do you encourage body policing? Do you call your friends out when they body shame others? When they make side-comments on your peers as they pass by? Do you condone these behaviors or do you condemn them?

The very first step in creating an environment where people feel safe talking about these issues is by noticing and correcting your own behavior and of those around you. Sure, there are a number of issues on an institutional level that inhibit the open discussion of this issue, such as the current state of SHACS, which does not always offer reliable support and resources for those dealing with eating disorders. But this does not give us an excuse as individuals who are a part of this institution to carry on with our own ignorance and body shaming ways.

Eating disorders are not a myth; they are not an illness that only the “vain” experience. Eating disorders are a reality for many, most probably including people you know and associate with on a daily basis. Conversations can only begin when people are educated about the topic. Educate yourself; dispel the myths that you associate with eating disorders. Call your friends out when you hear them making body shaming comments. Notice the way you compliment people—are all of your compliments always about someone’s appearance? Changing the way we talk about people and bodies is a relatively easy thing to do, and has long lasting impacts on the broader discourse on eating disorders.  

If there was one thing to take away from the event in Loose Lounge, it was that every individual has the power to make a change in the dialogue about eating disorders. I’m holding all of you accountable on this one, my fellow Grinnellians.