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Rethink eating stereotypes

Letter to the Editor | Friday, October 3, 2003

When I was 12 years old, my Grandma felt it necessary to point out as I innocently walked through my own living room that I had “hefty legs.” Now, I could blame my grandma for my body image concerns, dieting and eating disorder that soon followed. But your grandma might have said the same thing and you don’t even remember.

“An eating disorder is just a symptom of a bigger confidence problem,” I was quoted in yesterday’s Observer. However, after struggling for eight years with anorexia and bulimia, I can’t say my eating disorder is just a symptom of any one thing. If my problem had just been an issue with my hefty legs, I wouldn’t have seen them as fat when I had starved my way down to 80 pounds of bones. Nor would I have kept throwing up my food when I realized it wasn’t making them skinnier. If body image problems are just about looking good, than why do some supermodels think they are fat?

Although I was quoted as saying an eating disorder is “really a reaction to societal pressures forcing us to strive for bodily perfection,” it’s not really that either. We make our own decisions about what to strive for. I do believe the narrow ideal of physical beauty promoted by television, print, fashion designers and our own language gives men and women alike unrealistic standards for bodily “perfection.”

And, as Jessica Weiner explained Wednesday, one would be hard pressed to find an eating disorder case not preceded by a diet from the $180 billion industry that sells us back our own low self-esteem. However, more complex issues, such as family dynamics, sexual abuse or other personal trauma can also trigger the disconnection of mind from body, and desire for control of former over latter, that characterizes eating disorders.

An eating disorder exists because it serves a purpose. It outwardly appears that purpose is to lose weight. In reality, it provides a mechanism for coping with feelings. The desire to “perfect” one’s physique, the careful monitoring of food intake, the purging behavior or excessive exercise are methods for the sufferer to exert ìcontrolî in his or her life when all else seems out of immediate control. For some, eating is a way of self-medicating or self-nurturing. In our fast-paced, work-driven society, these behaviors can even be the only way one can slow down to “take care” of oneself, as twisted as that may sound. There is a reason not all eating disordered people want to “fix” their problem: it somehow serves them and works for them.

If we are really going to tackle this immense problem on campus, it is imperative we break down the stereotypes that my quotes may have seemed to perpetuate. If we are really going to help our girlfriends, brothers, friends and selves we’ve got to understand that the problem isn’t just our desires to lose weight or look “cut.” It is the deeper psychological concerns of which those desires are symptomatic. Eating disorders are not extreme diets, they are diseases of the soul, and until everyone sees them that way, the shame and stigma that surrounds them will keep sufferers silent and alone in their pain.

Kelly Shaffer

senior

Breen-Phillips Hall

resident assistant

leader, A Life Uncommon

Oct. 2