Content warning: The following text describes eating disorders and can be disturbing or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.
It’s a Friday night, and I’m in my dorm, eyeing my to–go tempeh from Hill House. I check my makeup in the mirror and reorganize all the things on my desk for the umpteenth time—silicone food container, plastic utensils, one–subject notebooks, lemon water, baby bonsai tree, multi–colored pens, crumpled sticky notes—before I flip open my laptop and browse through my most recent FaceTimes. After calling every one of my immediate family members to no avail, I grab my Himalayan sea salt from the spare desk that has become my makeshift food pantry/piano keyboard stand, and start eating.
Five minutes later, my mom calls me back. I’ve finished my dinner by then and move on to my stash of Thin Mints while lounging on my couch—the extra mattress that was meant for a roommate. After we hang up, I eat two more cookies, reveling in the fact that they’re called 'Thin' Mints. It’s 8:30 p.m. I move on to my pint of dairy–free ice cream in the freezer, the kind that only has 300 calories total so you don’t hate yourself too much if you accidentally binge. I take my vitamins, watch a Disney princess movie to keep me company—all while trying to ignore the sounds of intoxicated first years outside my window, whose voices will keep me up all night. I try to work on my paper for my writing seminar but instead escape to Netflix to watch Gilmore Girls, which brings my appetite back to sweets. By midnight, I’m out of Thin Mints.
I’ve always invested more in my relationship with food than with most people. For many, food is something you worry about when you’re hungry. But it’s never been that way for me. Throughout high school, I planned my breakfasts, snacks, and lunches in meticulous detail, measuring exactly one tablespoon of peanut butter for my PB&J sandwiches and counting exactly how many almond–flour crackers I’d eat as a snack. I would take out all the ingredients for my morning smoothie the night before, leaving a pink sticky note next to the blender that lists the ingredients and their exact measurements, along with corresponding calorie counts.
During the school day, I found myself writing in the margins of my notebooks, adding everything up: 250–calorie smoothie + 200–calorie homemade trail mix + 250 calories for hummus and chips + 60 calories of grapes + 30 calories for my afternoon coffee with almond milk and zero–calorie stevia. With two–thirds of my meals planned out, I was less stingy in the evenings, but I still made sure to brush my teeth and put on my retainer at 8 p.m. to prevent myself from acting on any late–night cravings.
Then I came to college, and my structured eating routine went down the drain. I was on a dining plan, for one thing, which meant I couldn’t meticulously measure out and calorie–count most of my meals. Instead of going to my hometown pure–roots coffee shop, I began frequenting Starbucks for their sugar–filled, hyper–caffeinated beverages. And worst of all was my dorm, which was not only my bedroom, but also my classroom, yoga studio, music practice room, dining hall, and food pantry. I couldn’t escape food.
Since the day I got accepted into college, I’ve been paranoid of gaining the notorious 'Freshman 15.' But on top of my changing eating habits, another curveball to my daily routine was the fast–paced, city–school lifestyle. I didn’t realize it at first, but every take–out excursion to Hill House and back was nearly a mile walk. This, along with all the other reasons I would have for going outside, would quickly add up in my step count. I started waking up to aching legs, not knowing what was wrong with me, only to check my Health App and realize I had been taking 10,000–20,000 steps a day since arriving at Penn. Some of those days included four–mile runs to the Rocky Steps and back.
I stopped counting my calories when I got mad at myself for exceeding what I used to consider 'normal.' I was actually hungrier all the time, thanks to my dramatic increase in daily steps. Instead, I invested my energy into trying not to lose my mind. I wanted to go home. I spent most of my time in my 10–by–12–foot dorm that was meant for two people but was suffocating for just one. I would open my snack drawer and finish a sleeve of Thin Mints. Then maybe peruse my refrigerator. Then find myself scrutinizing my reflection in the mirror above my sink, which also served as my kitchen counter. Then go back to watching Disney+. Then FaceTime my sister, who’d remind me that college is hard during a normal year, let alone a year where you can’t socially eat in dining halls or escape your snack–filled room to attend class.
My body has been extremely overwhelmed and confused since I set foot on campus in January. Every day, it asks, "What the fuck are you doing to me?" I have never walked or eaten so much in my life. And on top of all the physical strain that my 5–foot–4 frame has taken on, my mental psyche feels as if it's been thrown into a garbage disposal and spit out again. An infinity of insecurities play on repeat in my head: How am I going to make friends when I’m not even allowed to sit inside to have a cup of coffee with someone? How am I going to keep up with schoolwork when life is normal again if I can hardly keep up now? When am I going to start figuring out college? Next semester? The semester after that? And please, no one else ask me what I want to major in—I don’t even know what I want for lunch!
I’m struggling to maintain my sanity in this strange COVID–19 existence, stuck between a limbo of binge–eating snacks that I can’t run from and walking to the point of exhaustion just to escape my 10–by–12 cell. But both my overeating and over–exercising are coping mechanisms for the isolation and underlying stressors that have impacted all of us this year. I, like many, comfort myself by binge–eating, binge–watching, and refusing to stay still.
It’s a Saturday night, and I’m currently writing this piece in my dorm, trying to ignore the sounds of music blasting downstairs and kids laughing outside. I don’t have to stop calorie–counting out of frustration, since I never started today to begin with. After browsing my pantry, I find something sweet to eat. Out loud, I say, “It’s okay,” even though there’s no one but myself listening. I take a bite, and then another. I don’t regret it.
The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of eating disorders, regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., texting available 24/7): A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.