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Weiner addresses eating disorders, body image issues

Justin Tardiff | Thursday, February 24, 2005

Student government’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week continued Wednesday night with a lecture by author and speaker Jessica Weiner. Weiner’s program, entitled “Do I Look Fat in This? Decoding the Language of Body Hatred,” explored topics of eating disorders, body image and self-esteem through her own experiences and those of others.

Weiner has spoken at college campuses since she was an undergraduate and has toured professionally for ten years. Her book, “A Very Hungry Girl” was also featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

According to Weiner, her struggles with eating disorders began in childhood. She described the development of her illness from the time when she was a young girl growing up in a home of very weight-conscious parents.

“There are three flavors of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia and binge eating,” she said. “Growing up, I struggled with all of them. I started dieting with my mom when I was eleven. I learned how to count calories at too young of an age. I was 14 years old and exercising for four hours every day, but I hid it all.”

Weiner described bottoming out during her freshman year in college, only to experience an epiphany when she witnessed other women sharing their struggles with various problems.

“It was a pinnacle turning point for me. At that moment in time, I had a name for what I was doing [exercise bulimia], and I knew that I wasn’t alone. That was an amazing feeling,” she said.

She noted the tendency of women to express themselves in terms of body image rather than emotions, noting that complaints about fatness frequently stem from other concerns and problems.

“Fat is not a feeling. It is a catchphrase and substitute for what we are feeling. The emotions we can feel are things like happiness, sadness and anger,” she said.

According to Weiner, eating disorders represent an enormous and underestimated problem in the United States.

“While 10 million women and one million men have a diagnosed eating disorder, an estimated 25 million people in total have some form of an eating disorder,” she said. “… Anorexia is the number one mental health disorder resulting in death, as 20 percent of those who struggle with this disease succumb to it. That is hundreds of thousands of women every year.”

Weiner also pointed out that eating disorders are not limited to only women or to only white women; Latina and black women have shown huge increases in rates of eating disorders, she said.

While physically-focused pursuits, such as dance and athletics, may increase a person’s chances of developing an eating disorder, Weiner said, an overarching cultural emphasis on weight and body image can create unbearable pressure on individuals. She described America’s “incredibly fat-phobic” culture, which allows destructive and restrictive behavior to fall under the category of health.

“Although I attended performing arts schools, a big part of the problem came simply from the fact that I grew up as a girl in the world. This is the last acceptable bastion of discrimination in America. Who wants to be fat in this country? Eighty percent of elementary school children surveyed said they were afraid of being fat,” said Weiner.

This culture of fearing fat and worshipping health has created even more impediments to fighting unhealthy eating, according to Weiner. She noted that research for isolating a gene that could increase susceptibility to anorexia has been stymied due to lack of funds, while the American health industry nets $80 billion each year.

“The need to talk about this issue is profound. Like many college campuses, [Notre Dame] is an incredibly tough school, and you all are perfectionists. There is incredible pressure on you,” she said.

According to Weiner, one of the main ways to address the issue of low self-image is through careful use of language. Words of body hatred intensify the problem dramatically, she said. While refusing to speak in terms of body hatred might be difficult, Weiner noted that it is essential to any social change.

“Ghandi said to be the change you wish to see in the world. You have to be the one person in your group who does not bow to self-loathing body hatred,” she said.

Weiner also emphasized the need for women to monitor the exposure they allow themselves to the media. She noted that no model, male or female, reaches a magazine cover without being airbrushed and worked over by an entire team of professionals.

“You are not supposed to look like her. She doesn’t even look like her,” Weiner said.

She advised students who have friends suffering from eating disorders to remember the importance of listening in a relationship. While they cannot solve their friend’s problem, she explained that being there and caring is often the best approach to the situation.

Weiner emphasized that no person should be defined in terms of appearance and numbers. She recently refused to reveal her weight to a New York Times reporter at the bottom point of her sickness, deciding instead to use terms that would not lead to any comparisons by readers.

“I like my friends who choose to resonate fully in their bodies and their lives,” she said.

Weiner mentioned resources on campus for individuals struggling with eating disorders or anyone who might have questions. She cited the University Counseling Center as one venue for students to find support. She also mentioned a campus group called A Life Uncommon, which meets Wednesdays at 9 p.m. in room 316 of the Coleman-Morse Building.

“A Life Uncommon is an incredible group. It has become a viable, tangible presence on this campus,” she said.