The Young Adult Section: Eating disorders at Stanford

Two months ago, I wrote a column about my eating disorder. I had hoped to explain why eating disorders themselves were less a root problem and more a symptom of a universal issue: the desire for control

Over the past couple years, though, I’ve also begun noticing the particularity of eating disorders at Stanford. The disorder persists because it’s an internal psychology, which is an invisible topic. “It happens, but no one talks about it” because it is so well-camouflaged. It weaves itself into Stanford lives in so many ways.

Even if we on the outside see the most blatant behavioral changes in someone, our fear of sounding judgmental prevents us from saying anything. It’s an unexpected side effect of our emphasis on total toleration. I always wondered why not one person legitimately commented on my new, committed habits that entire year. Yet just a bit later, even I felt that hesitancy when I recognized my former seemingly innocuous habits replayed by a dormmate. I was passive and never addressed it — even after learning personally the damage of the disorder. Later, I discovered that she had indeed been suffering and was in recovery. I’m now quite afraid of my own ability to ignore.

The irony proceeds. Our campaigns for fitness, athleticism, eating healthily and avoiding sugar set a high standard for the country. They react and respond to a broader epidemic of obesity, low food quality and sustainability issues. Equally destructive, though, is the volatile swing to the other extreme, where a one-size-fits-all “health” formula becomes a life purpose, which doesn’t make sense either. Health does not equate to two people sitting at a table, eating identical proportions of vegetables and non-vegetables. Yet still I hear “Oh, you eat so healthily!” as a well-intended compliment that once gave me a burst of psychological energy to continue depriving myself of calories.

Stanford recognizes this, for which I’m exceedingly appreciative. I don’t think there are many other schools that so loudly and creatively proclaim the holistic nature of wellness. It gets complicated, though: in the process of promoting its importance, we too easily short-circuit ourselves to focus simply on its external face. It’s an extremely difficult line to gauge. In any art or film class I’ve ever taken, a major discussion has always been about authenticity versus image, for as something authentic grows in value, so does the value of the image. The mechanics of an eating disorder exemplify this: relative to pursuing true spiritual peace, the visible interpretation is much more convenient. And we fall for that, over and over again, trusting our ability to follow good strategy.

Which leads me also to a third observation: certain personality traits are both stellar for academics and useful for eating disorders. Think of how much strength and destruction is contained in “perfectionism,” “high need for structure,” and thoughts like “I will only eat ‘good’ things” (disorder symptoms listed by Vaden). Several of my friends confirm that their ambitious work ethic and goal-oriented nature — even a penchant for numbers (counting calories) — were essential to sustaining an eating disorder.

The difficulty in calling out an eating disorder is that it is defined by a way of thinking, and the actions that follow are only potential indicators. Everyone eats differently, grows up with different cultural standards and needs completely variable things. But eating disorders boil down to a question of motives, which include but are not limited to: an ever-decreasing scale number, an appearance that will never come and a distraction from more emotional issues.

We are, however, at a place where being unbelievably busy is 100 percent socially acceptable. Thus, not everyone is taking time to address their truest intentions, let alone those of others around us. This is a significant part of why an eating disorder can tyrannize a Stanford student for so long. The insanity of its purpose takes reflection, introspection and a community of people who will reaffirm that appearance doesn’t suffice as a life goal.

This column isn’t meant for the student with the disorder. For those engulfed in a radical eating regime, it’s likely to sound totally irrelevant. This column, ultimately, is for the student nearby, or the dormmate or classmate or friend noticing something. You might not know what to say or do, but there are people at Stanford (Stanford Healthy Body Image Program or Vaden) who are prepared. Many of them went through this, and are trying to spare others.


Nina is always open to responses, at ninamc “at” stanford “dot” edu.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=745211302 Jmark Ma

    I thought of this the other day.  There was a photo of an emaciated Kelly Ripa on a beach with a bathing suit on and she looked terrible. I haven’t seen anyone that skinny in a long time. She had absolutely no chest, and she was skin and bones. 

    Underneath the caption had the yahoo reporter saying how amazingly hot she looked and how fantastic a body she had.  Maybe for an 8 year old. 

    This is by far not a new problem.  But to see so many celebs going back to the skin and bones look and seeing so many copy it is disturbing.  Whether it be for control or just peer pressure, it has and unfortunately always will be a problem that seems to lack the focus it deserves.