Unlimited food in the dining halls, free snacks at club meetings, and food-laden study breaks—when are college students not surrounded by food? Here at Yale, food is intimately intertwined with social life, yet while we often associate this abundance of food with weight gain and unhealthy eating habits, in doing so we turn a blind eye to other types of detrimental relationships with food. For two years, in the transition from middle to high school, I had an eating disorder. I restricted heavily and frantically avoided social outings, isolating myself until my recovery began. Now, while trying to maintain the facade of serenity and efficiency that every other Yalie seems to effortlessly pull off, I have experienced a resurgence of feelings I once associated with my eating disorder: a simultaneous desire for control in a dynamic environment and pressure to conceal my anxieties. My own experience has taught me that in response to a campus culture characterized by maintaining the pretense of composure while internalizing stress, we should prioritize our own physical and emotional well-being and reach out for help in times of need.
College students face countless challenges and enormous transitions, both academically and socially. The process of becoming self-reliant and taking on difficult decisions is exciting but stressful, and yet despite this stress, Yalies often seem to glide effortlessly on the surface—going to the gym, working at the library, and getting more than eight hours of sleep each night, all while achieving the prestigious status of “Woads scholar.” This illusion is popularly known as the “duck syndrome:” we seem fine on the exterior, floating peacefully on the surface, but are paddling feverishly underneath to stay afloat. This mass delusion manifests in a suppressed competitive attitude. Not only do we evaluate each other’s physical accomplishments, but also our physical and mental states. When is the last time you went to the gym? How tired do you look? When did you last do laundry? This quickly becomes a game of not only sizing up everyone we meet, but also anticipating others’ criticism of ourselves. We become afraid to acknowledge our own insecurities and feelings of anxiety or depression, assuring ourselves that we are just as buoyant as those around us.
But the truth is, you don’t always have to stay afloat. At Yale, inundated with new faces, new grades, and new activities, I have been overwhelmed with the need to regain command over my life. As I contrast myself to others while trying to maintain a veneer of coolness, my sense of vulnerability peaks, and I find myself experiencing the yearning for security and longing for stability that once spurred my destructive eating disorder behavior. Two years of my life were defined by a numbers game. Where others saw food, I saw numbers—calories, grams of fat, and grams of protein. I had sold my soul to the number 1200. My heart pounded with anxiety when friends invited me over for meals. How could I explain to them why my hair was falling out and my skin was shriveling, or that I simply did not want to go out to a restaurant, or that my life was dominated by eating, an action they took for granted? It is one kind of hell to live through an eating disorder, but it is another type of hell to even begin to talk about it. For two years, I felt isolated and lost—I was living a double life, not unlike that of the duck syndrome. To some, I was a thriving, vivid person, a girl who giggled at almost any joke and dedicated countless hours to extracurricular activities; elsewhere, I was defined by skipping meals, avoiding the friends who I knew would remark on my shrinking frame, and dedicating hours and hours each day to hammering nutritional facts into my memory. For two years, I lived this life of distress and anxiety. It’s not that I didn’t want to stop—I just couldn’t.
It’s been almost four years since I last went a day without eating, since I last typed in numbers on a calorie-counting website in a sharp panic. It is difficult to determine the point at which I embarked on the long, painful process known as “recovery,” just as it is difficult to pinpoint the time at which the eating disorder began, but one thing is certain: recovery is both physical and mental. Within six months of recovery, I had gained back 40 pounds and experienced my first menstrual cycle—the physical symptoms were gone, but the mental struggles took much longer to depart. This struggle, I could not handle alone, and as I relied on my family and close friends for a community of support, the voices in my head that once urged restriction and control soon waned to a soft murmur.
You don’t have to be alone. Learn to separate your own standards from those of others and detach your self-worth from your social advancement. In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week in the upcoming week, take the time to reach out to those you love and practice self-care. The thing about eating disorders is that they never truly leave you, always creeping up on you when you stare into the mirror. You can never truly get rid of the faint whispers of criticism and doubt; you just learn to listen to the louder voices that encourage and empower. Amidst this campus stress culture, we must not forget to take care of ourselves, not only for the benefit of our own emotional and physical health, but also for the ones we love. We never know what battles they’re fighting, so be willing to lend an ear, and know that reaching out for help is never a sign of weakness; it’s an emblem of strength.
Yale Mental Health & Counseling for Students: 203-432-0290
Student Health: 203-432-0312
Yale Walden Peer Counseling: 203-432-TALK
National Eating Disorders Association: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/