Before attending Wesleyan, I didn’t know anyone who had an eating disorder. However, I had attended enough high school health courses to know that such conditions are prevalent among people my age. According to the Eating Disorders Coalition, a federal eating disorder advocacy organization, about 11 million Americans are suffering from an eating disorder. Of those, the United States Drug Administration claims that 90 percent are adolescents and young adults. However, without a personal connection to someone who was recovering or suffering from an eating disorder, I never felt compelled to consider the effect of these illnesses on those who struggle with them. I was never forced to consider the ways in which eating disorders are intertwined with societal discourse on food, health, and wellness.
All of that has changed. I am now close to several people who have struggled, or are still struggling, with an eating disorder. I have also learned that people I had known for years had been suffering from the emotional and physical effects of eating disorders without my knowledge. If my experience is any indication, such illnesses are, despite their prevalence, practically invisible to vast subsections of the Wesleyan population.
This “invisibility” is linked to the ways we at Wesleyan talk about food, health, and fitness, which can normalize porentially disordered behaviors. Our health-conscious campus has made our conversations about what we eat and how we exercise intensely competitive, and as such, they can be harmful and triggering for those who suffer or have recovered from an eating disorder and dangerous for those who are at risk of developing one.
Through merely our words, we have all accidentally rendered eating-disordered behavior socially acceptable, even desirable.
Take these common sentences, uttered at virtually every public meal: “I don’t need any more”; “I can’t believe how much I ate”; “I really shouldn’t eat that.” There are countless examples of these phrases, all of which revolve around the same idea: that food can be assigned negative or positive value and should be subjected to control and regulation. Although this treatment of food is common everywhere, at Wesleyan this practice takes on a fever pitch. When all students are expected to be health conscious, people go out of their way to atone for their dietary “sins” and to affirm to others that they know which foods are “bad” and which ones are “good.”
Tied to our tendency to evaluate the food we eat is a communal obsession with exercise as a method for correcting “bad” dietary decisions. Exercise can of course be a positive activity, great for alleviating stress, increasing strength, and cultivating endurance, among other things. However, taken to an extreme or pursued for the wrong reasons, exercise can quickly become a compulsion, a means for unintentionally competing with others and exacerbating socially constructed, damaging fears about food. Once it is linked too closely with negative attitudes toward food, exercise no longer serves its proper function, instead becoming akin to “purging” oneself of “unhealthy” choices.
It is rare to encounter discussions about exercise that aren’t laced with guilt or obligation. At a campus susceptible to competitive discussions about food consumption and fitness routines, such language is frequently harmful to those who hear it. It perpetuates the notion that a student who eats too much of something should feel guilty about that choice and must exercise to correct the “mistake.”
We are all guilty of using words and phrases that encourage harmful approaches toward food and exercise, facets of our lives that should feel relaxing and enjoyable, not compulsive and competitive. Even by just being aware of how easy it is to slip into damaging discourses on food and fitness, every Wesleyan student can work toward cultivating a more self-affirming, body-positive campus environment. It’s our responsibility to focus on the way we talk about these lifestyle choices in order to combat the communal perpetuation of disordered behaviors.