Before spring break, The Argus sat down with Sarah Koppelkam ’15, whose blog post, “How To Talk To Your Daughter About Her Body,” received nearly 375,000 likes when the Huffington Post picked it up. During her conversation with The Argus, Koppelkam discussed the intersection of food and body image and her perspectives on American culture’s approach to eating.
Editor’s note: the contents of this interview may be triggering to some readers.
The Argus: How and when did you first start writing about body image?
Sarah Koppelkam: I think it’s something I’ve thought about for a long time, but I started writing about it for myself probably [at the] end of high school, beginning of college, and I decided to start publishing some articles about it over this past summer. This is never something I saw myself as becoming an advocate for, because I always thought there were people who struggled a lot more. But I’m kind of shameless, so if my sharing whatever I went through helps somebody else, I think that’s great.
A: How did your own experiences of anorexia and bulimia inform your advocacy?
SK: Well, first of all, I wouldn’t necessarily say I have personally experienced anorexia and bulimia. I try to avoid labeling myself in those categories, just because I think a lot of people have had more serious health issues than I have.
It’s something I’ve been aware of from a really young age. My mom had an eating disorder, so I was always very educated. For a long time, I thought that I was the only one experiencing this kind of stuff, because in high school, nobody around me was really going through that, and I felt very alone.
As I came to college, as I started to speak up more about it, I realized this was much more universal than I thought. I also realized that experiences of eating disorders are much more complex, and differ from person to person, in a way that isn’t really talked about that often. My personal experiences, I think, made me feel like reaching out, because I didn’t want anyone else to go through them alone.
A: What inspired your post, “How To Talk To Your Daughter About Her Body”?
SK: It’s actually about a Wesleyan student; it’s not about me. I was living in [a city on the East Coast] and the two of us had breakfast. Her mom had said some really nasty things—her mom has put pressure on her for a long time—and so…I went back to work and wrote this piece.
We get pressure from so many places [that] we don’t need it from our own moms, who are such a big influence on our life. So that was what inspired the piece, and it wasn’t my own mom because she’s been really great. The fact that I can still have problems with such a fantastic role model I think goes to show how much of an influence [outside sources] can be.
A: What are some of the biggest myths about eating disorders?
SK: One is that they’re visible from the outside; one is that they always come along with dramatic weight loss (that kind of goes along with being visible); [one is] that they only affect women; [one is] that you can only have one type of eating disorder, whether it’s anorexia, bulimia, binge eating. I think those are some of the biggest ones, but there are so many.
A: How do you believe perception of food and body image are intertwined?
SK: I think they’re huge[ly intertwined], because our society is obsessed with food. One of the examples that I think is really telling is when you go on Pinterest…You see the most indulgent desserts, these cakes and desserts and foods that are just so rich and crazy, and then right next to it you see, “Seven Day Slimdown Plan,” “How to Get Thin Fast.” So I think we’re kind of obsessed with these extremes, and that creates an idea that there are good and bad foods. I think that concept[s] of “good and bad,” “should and shouldn’t,” [are] what makes food such a powerful instigator of eating disorders.
A: What role does food play in recovering from these disorders?
SK: For me, [food] was a huge part of it. My eating disorder went along with other issues, like depression, that required me to deal with those separately and get at the background of what was going on. I think a lot of times that happens, where you have to deal with some other issues outside of food and exercise and body stuff, but also, for me, to stop obsessing about food was the first step in becoming a normal eater and a person who could think about my body in a positive way. So definitely the first step.
A: How do you think the weight loss industry plays into people’s perception of themselves as eaters?
SK: I have a theory. I’m obviously not an expert, but I think the obesity epidemic, or whatever you want to call it, and the body image issues that we have in the United States—which are both huge problems and affect millions of people—are related to the same underlying issues. One of those, I think, is holding ourselves to really high standards of perfection. I think when you’re told you can’t be perfect unless you fit into this one exact mold. I think you can go one of two ways: overeating and not being able to stop, which causes a lot of obesity, or falling into the trap of restricting and [having] these eating disorder behaviors. So I really believe they’re part of the same issue, and [that] when you’re constantly being bombarded with messages about what’s wrong and what’s right, you get these kind of problems. That’s just my theory.
A: If you suspect a friend of yours has an eating disorder, what’s the best way to express your concern?
SK: I think there are two levels of [concern]. There’s the case when it is a really serious problem, when somebody’s exhibiting behaviors of bulimia. Whether it’s throwing up or using laxatives or exercising punishingly, those things can be really harmful to your health and have immediate consequences, as can extreme weight loss associated with anorexia. So [in] those two cases I think it’s really important to get the person help, whether it means confronting the person directly and saying, “I’ll go with you or I’ll help you find a resource,” or talking to someone you think would be better suited, whether that’s a family member or a closer friend. Because [in] those situations, a lot of times you can’t wait, and they can get worse faster.
The other situation, which I think is harder, is when someone’s kind of on the borderline, and you think that they might be a little bit obsessed with their eating, their exercise, and their [body]. And that’s something that I still don’t know if I have a good answer for. I think a big part of it is just that you [not do] anything that could trigger them. So if you’re around them, no comments about diets, no comments about food being good or bad, no shaming about exercising or not exercising, and definitely no [saying], “I hate my body so much,” because that creates an environment for comparison and competition.
Then if you feel close enough with someone, if you can commiserate and share your own experiences—“You know, I went through this, and I think you might be going through kind of the same thing. Here’s what I found helped me,” or “Here’s how I found that my life is better now”—I think that can be really helpful. For me, one of the biggest helps was having friends who had gone through similar things before and could relate to what I was going through.
A: When you were struggling with eating issues, what did you absolutely not want to hear from friends and people around you?
SK: I didn’t tell anybody that I was struggling. I didn’t really get any advice that was negative or didn’t help, but I do know that it made it a lot worse when I was with friends who had similar issues [but didn’t know about mine]. I think friends who have similar issues make each other worse [if those issues are not addressed]. So if your best friend is also saying, “I can only eat salad,” that’s just going to make everything exponentially worse. Or if she’s saying, “I’m so fat,” and you’re looking at her and thinking, “Well, if she’s fat, then I must be huge.” Those are the most toxic things for me.
There’s really no need to talk about food, you know? Talking about food in one sense—“Oh, this is so delicious; this is so great”—that’s one thing. But there’s really no need to talk about how you’re restricting and controlling your own diet, whether that’s a decision not to eat gluten because you have an intolerance or whether it’s that you’re eating a little bit more because you’ve been working out more. I just don’t think there’s a need to talk about those things because they can be so triggering.
A: How can we as a community foster healthy eating habits at Wesleyan?
SK: Removing judgment is probably the most important thing. I think just making eating as enjoyable as possible is really important. A lot of Wesleyan students are constantly on a time crunch, and [they] end up shoving something in [their] mouth on [their] way to class, or in [their] half-hour break [they] barely have time to eat. Having time to sit down can be really helpful in being conscious of how much you need to eat or what you need to eat, instead of just grabbing whatever’s available and then feeling bad about it later or feeling starving later because you didn’t get enough. I think if you keep those basic principles in mind, you can create a good eating environment.