There are eating disorders hidden all over campus.
But they’re camouflaged, tucked between the disordered habits that have somehow gained access into our culture’s twisted definition of “normal.”
“No, I already ate before.”
“Oh, I feel fat today.”
“I need to work off the calories.”
“All I’ve had today is coffee.”
These comments seem benign, and variations are often tossed around in harmless conversation. But these statements also promote a disordered eating—this type of language, intentional or not, only adds to our already skewed understanding of what it means to have an eating disorder.
The stereotypes that surround eating disorders, paired with the normalized and trivialized language we so often use to describe them, make it that much harder for sufferers to acknowledge the problem.
And with this language saturating the dialogue, there doesn’t seem to be much space to have an honest conversation about eating disorders.
“Historically, eating disorders were thought of—even in the literature—as happening mostly among white, middle class women.”
Though she says historically, Jeannine Cicco Barker, a Post Doctoral Fellow and member of the Eating Concerns team at CAPS, is reminded of the inaccuracies of this statement every day. “If you look at the numbers that’s just not the case, it’s just across different areas of diversity and across different ethnicities.” She glances across the room at her nodding colleagues. “Racial identities, sexual identities, gender identities, everything.”
These myths blind our culture, and especially the smaller community of Penn, to the realities and complexities of eating disorders. By allowing inaccurate stereotypes to dominate our mental image of eating disorders, we often forget to look for them in people who don’t fit the mold. Even individuals suffering themselves from an eating disorder can be blinded by the stereotype.
Adam*, a first year graduate student, explains that gender bias made it difficult for him to accept he had a problem.
He admits that sometimes, especially as a gay male, he feels he’s “not being taken seriously by straight men.” He explains that he finds it difficult to associate himself with a disorder that has always been “in such contrast to my idea of masculinity.”
Even months after finally addressing the issue with his therapist, Adam still avoids saying “eating disorder.” “It’s still hard.” He cringes. “I hate saying it.”
Adam began seeing a therapist at CAPS when he started at Penn in the fall. Around that time, Adam began to lose control of his eating habits, frequently skipping meals and often eating less than 500 calories in a day. But despite that, and his visibly thin frame, he and his therapist didn’t even address his eating habits until December.
For Adam, and most other patients, the triggers of an eating disorder are much less tangible. Although biological predisposition is a large factor, many disorders ultimately develop as a means of coping with emotional distress.
“I don’t feel as if body image is the sole reason that I’ve developed an eating disorder,” Adam explains. Rationally, he’s able to admit, “I can’t control how my parents reacted [when I came out], I can’t control what other kids said in my childhood, I can’t control a lot of things.” Instead, Adam turned to things he could control—his eating habits.
“My therapist asked me if I self–harm, to make myself feel better, you know, take control. And I said, ‘no, no, no, no,’” Adam remembers. “And she was like, ‘Okay but let’s think about what you told me about your eating. Isn’t this a mode of self–harming? Like starving yourself as a way of taking control of the situation?’ I guess I didn’t think of it that way.”
For those who only associate eating disorders with thin, white females, it’s easy to assume that all eating disorders are driven by a desire to be skinny. And that is perhaps the most destructive, and inaccurate, side effect of this myth.
Less than a few months before Liza Bernstein's (C ‘17) eating disorder landed her in CHOP's inpatient program—on bed rest and at risk for a heart attack—at the beginning of her sophomore year at Penn, she didn't think she was skinny enough to have an eating disorder.
She had severely restricted her diet and lost weight all summer. When her mood started deteriorating from extreme hunger and fatigue, she began seeing a therapist. But when the subject of eating came up, her therapist told her that she hadn’t lost enough weight to meet the DSM–5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) requirement for an eating disorder.
“You couldn’t see my bones, I didn’t look like I was dying,” she explains. But looking back, as if addressing herself and the therapist who helped her remain in denial, she notes, “Well... I was kind of dying.”
“It’s not just looking skeletal, you’re not gonna show up looking like you weigh 60 pounds all of the sudden.”
Even two years after recovering from a severe bout of anorexia her sophomore year of high school, Becca Lambright (C’19) still sounds frustrated when she refers to the assumption that in order to be anorexic, you need to look sickly thin.
And she has a right to be frustrated. Becca’s malnourishment so diminished her mental capacity that she nearly flunked out of high school. “That was the hardest part,” she admits, “I didn’t feel like I had anyone helping me through it.”
The size stereotype Becca faced can also make it difficult for someone to acknowledge their own disorder, let alone recognize it in someone else.
“People don’t realize it’s not just an adjective, you can’t just be like, ‘Oh, she looks so anorexic,’” Becca says.
Although Becca hasn’t been anorexic since high school, she admits it’s been more difficult since coming to Penn. Part of that, she knows, is due to the fixation on body image and seemingly constant stream of disordered language. But for her, the most difficult part has been the conversations that aren’t being had.
“I know it exists,” she says, “But it’s just not talked about.”
She says she doesn’t tell people she has an eating disorder because “...I’m really afraid people won’t believe me. I don’t know if that sounds stupid. Because I feel like people say things like, ‘Oh, well, you don’t look underweight,’ and, ‘Oh, well you don’t look like you’re struggling with that.’”
Despite her fear, Becca still wishes there could be a more open dialogue. I think that’s another reason that people don’t talk about it,” she says, “It’s hard finding the right audience.”
“The cult of salad is so real.”
Though her phrasing is almost comical, Sasha* (C ‘17) isn’t joking.
While eating a salad a day, as Sasha admits she does, isn’t inherently unhealthy—it’s the motives behind her consumption that make it so dangerous. “I hate my body. That’s why I go to Sweetgreen every day.” Sasha explains.
“Whenever people ask, ‘How are you?’” Sasha notes, “I never say it, but the answer is always, ‘Hungry.’”
“It’s concerning how normal it is to the students,” says Debbie Westerling, one of the nutritionists at Student Health Services. “It’s not normal to not eat all day, and it’s not normal to not eat a specific food group—every food group, every nutrient has a purpose. By excluding it, it can, again, start to fester and spiral out of control.”
The line between these “normal” unhealthy eating habits and genuine symptoms of eating disorders has become so blurred that it’s almost impossible to even differentiate the two.
Last spring, Sophie* (C ‘17) would stumble back to her sorority house with her friends after parties or downtowns. But instead of ending up in her bed, Sophie would find herself hunched over in the bathroom, throwing up a night’s worth of Banker’s and, more importantly, dinner.
Her friends wouldn’t think twice about it—at least one or two of them was hunched over in another bathroom doing the same thing.
The only difference is, her friends just drank too much. Maybe they were lightweights, or started too early or just weren’t paying attention.
Sophie was paying attention, though. She knew her limits. She would get drunk to the point where she knew, even one more shot would make her sick. Then, she’d take it.
“I’ve never really talked about it, so sorry if I don’t make sense or cry about it or something,” says Sara Thalheimer C ‘17, a Street copy director.
Sara has always struggled with food. She explains, “I’ve always had eating disorders, like since I was a kid, when I was little I was really picky and I was underweight. But I was aware of it, and I liked it.”
“In high school I would throw up sometimes,” Sara remembers. “...I like tracked calories, and like, I ended up eating like 600 calories a day. My goal was 1,000, most days I didn’t even hit it, and I lost like ten pounds...but I wasn’t doing anything, I was just not eating.”
As she entered Penn, Sara found that her low weight wasn’t a point of concern for those who surrounded her, but rather, something worthy of praise. “My roommate, a couple times, would make some comment like, you look really thin today. And she meant that in a nice way, like she didn’t know that I wasn’t eating...It was very much like, positive reinforcement.”
Her disordered eating was compounded by an intestinal condition that made it difficult to keep down food. Later, when Sara returned from a summer abroad, she started taking antidepressants, which suppressed her already small appetite. She quickly shed 30 pounds in ten weeks.
Some days she would get by eating just a bowl of cereal and a piece of bread. At a certain point, Sara explains, “It was like, how many days in a row can I go with eating that little, before I have to actually eat one day.” Sara pauses. “It’s four, by the way.”
Still, despite her rapid weight loss, none of her friends or boyfriend at the time said anything. “When I actually take a step back and think about it,” she realizes, “it’s shocking how no one had said anything.”
Sara, who was willing to share her real name after keeping her secret for three years, argues, “I think for many people with eating struggles, especially at Penn, there’s a big part of them, maybe subconscious, that wants people to know.”
* Indicates names have been changed.
Julie Levitan is a sophomore from Pennsylvania studying English. She is the Culture Editor for Street.