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The lesson of Jane

| Thursday, September 4, 2014

College is essentially the average student’s brush with academic and social freedom. No one tells you to go to bed at 11, study for three hours, or eat according to the food pyramid you learned about in Kindergarten. Depending upon how students are raised, their habits tend to carry over into their newfound independence unless they feel oppressed, in which case they “rebel.”  A close friend of mine, “Jane,” rebelled once she was left alone in her middle-of-nowhere campus, but in a starkly different way than what you’re probably imagining.

Enrolling in a tiny liberal arts college in the Midwest, Jane’s self-assurance ignited a philosophy that if she ate two small meals a day, she could lose at least 20 pounds by the time her parents came up for her birthday in six weeks. She was desperate to prove herself as an individual, but even more as a body.

Unfortunately, the battle for a slim body cost her much of her individuality in addition to her mental health and self-image. Jane lost her weight and much of her cheery disposition by fasting for multiple days.  After 20 pounds and her parents’ shock, she persevered for 25, 30, and 40 pounds more, dire to do anything and everything drastic for the sake of being thin by Christmas. These extremes were subtle to the outsider, but in hindsight, their presence was prevalent.

By second semester, Jane’s hair had dried and thinned, resembling the coarse hair of a horse’s tail. Her skin was an unhealthy pallid white. Binging and purging isolated her, triggering terrible bouts of anxiety and depression that had already existed from four months worth of fasting. No one approached her or asked if she was genuinely well, for she had an uncanny ability to wear a fake face.

Her breaking point came after Spring break when she hyperventilated and begged her academic advisor to discuss the option of a health leave with her parents. After meeting with two counselors, Jane decided, on her own terms, to finish the semester and complete her courses.

When I first began, I briefly broached the topic of the freedom college offers for students. This freedom is the consequence of independence and an opportunity for character development. What all students should assess from Jane’s experience is that the true application of academic and social freedom involves self-improvement and growth. Jane thought her efforts would make her more popular, which she concluded in hindsight to be a petty and shallow goal. She was blind to the deterioration of her eating disorder.  She saw it as a chance to redeem her confidence. What Jane didn’t understand when she first entered college, was that appearance is different from confidence. She never had to be anything but herself, but she believed she was defined by a size. Therefore, I encourage you, student, professor, citizen, to raise up fellow community members when you sense they feel degraded. We are all privileged to be here in this community. We have a responsibility to help our own.

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