Deeper issue must be addressed
Letter to the Editor | Thursday, March 20, 2008
The recent Health and Body Image Conference held at Notre Dame may have succeeded in raising awareness of eating disorders, but it hardly succeeded in pinpointing the issues underlying them.
A distorted body image is not the fundamental problem, but only a manifestation of the true issue. At their root, eating disorders are a mechanism for coping with extreme anxiety and self-hatred. Our societal fixation on a certain (unrealistic) standard of physical perfection may give the anxiety a vehicle to inhabit, but in absence of a deeper psychological pathology, this ideal will not develop into the obsessive behavior that characterizes an eating disorder. (It is well worth recalling, here, the clinical name – anorexia nervosa – loss of appetite due to nerves).
Addressing eating disorders, then, involves not merely asking, as Valerie Staples did, “What situations here have contributed to your view of food, weight and body image?” Rather, it involves asking instead, “What situations have cultivated in you feelings of deficiency or self-doubt?” This line of questioning reveals that eating disorders arise not in a society that prizes merely physical perfection, but one that judges the individual on scholarly, financial, athletic and personal success – to the point of reducing the human person to a résumé of these accomplishments.
The anxiety of never feeling good enough – in any realm – contributes to the development of an eating disorder. If the University truly wishes to address eating disorders, the solution is not to hold a conference highlighting a supermodel as the keynote speaker.
Ultimately, the University must reevaluate the kind of mental health that is fostered on this campus. More immediately, the University must prioritize making high quality counselling more available to the student body.
While it is possible to find this at the counselling center, it is also true that the center is chronically unable to meet student demand, consigning some to their waiting list and churning others through at a rushed pace or in a limited number of sessions. Hiring more counselors to supplement the doctoral interns won’t eradicate eating disorders on campus, but it will increase the possibility that those who wrestle with them will receive adequate care.