Content warning: This column has graphic descriptions of eating disorders and disordered eating.
I like to tell myself that I have never had an eating disorder—I just sometimes have very disordered eating.
On good days, I have coffee for breakfast, pasta for lunch, and protein with some vegetables for dinner. Other days, I decide that I look like a whale and need to see how long I can survive on as few calories as possible. I struggled with my body image in high school, but when I came to campus my first year, I found it increasingly difficult to fight the idea that I needed to be skinnier. I was terrified of gaining the freshman fifteen—so much so that I found myself hoping, completely unreasonably, that I would lose a freshman fifteen.
However, as I opened up more to friends about my struggles and tuned in to others’ commentary surrounding their body image and eating habits, I noticed that this “disordered eating” is something of an unspoken normality on campus. It’s not intentional, but it’s not unintentional, and we either gloss right over it or view it as a point of something akin to pride.
Subsisting only on bagels because you’re too busy running between classes and extracurriculars to sit down at the dining hall; over-caffeinating or smoking that extra cigarette because they’re also appetite suppressants; preparing for formal with one of the week-long juice cleanses from Pressed Juicery; skipping a few meals when you’re bloated instead of going for a run; purging after overeating instead of adjusting your meal intake and workout schedule the next day—
Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.
These behaviors are symptoms of a larger problem regarding how many students interact with food, stress culture, and body image. Many of the traits that helped us get into Columbia—a drive for excellence, high levels of self-discipline, a sense that we can determine the outcome of any project we put our minds to, and all those other fun Type A personality traits—are also the traits that, given the right circumstances, allow students to develop disordered eating with varying ranges of severity. It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg problem: Do we see these obsessive, controlling habits rewarded in our academics and subsequently apply them to other areas of our lives? Or did these tendencies of disordered eating and self-critique always exist, only to flourish now that we are on our own?
When something goes wrong in my life—a bad grade, a breakup, what have you—I have a tendency to turn it on myself. This outlook is an ouroboros. I need food to perform at a high level, but when I’m not performing the way I want to, I end up cutting out the very thing that is most necessary. I know this consciously, but occasionally I get fixated on the desire to reach some unattainable ideal of physical perfection. This past summer, I got caught in a spiral that scared me. I was surviving on far too few calories a day. And even though I didn’t want to be hungry and exhausted at work, even though I wanted to be able to hold up my own body weight in yoga class, I couldn’t pull myself out of the spiral of obsessing over how my body looked.
Eventually, I got scared enough that I told my best friend what was going on. She listened, hugged me, and gave me a chance to talk out the anxieties that had caused this spiral in the first place. And then she told me just to start small. She got me to eat breakfast three days a week that week, and then to bring a real lunch—i.e. not just a cup of yogurt—to work for the entirety of the next one. Sooner than I would have thought possible, I managed to get back to “normal.”
We’ve talked about stress culture ad nauseum, and we’re hopefully in the midst of a mental health reform on campus, but mental health concerns don’t end at depression and anxiety. Disordered eating and body dysmorphia fall under that umbrella, too. They’re oftentimes easy to disregard because we have been trained to view disordered eating as a predominantly female-centric issue, and because the signs and symptoms are often difficult to recognize, but the effects of disordered eating, particularly when allowed to go unchecked, can be just as devastating.
And while it’s fantastic that people everywhere have begun sharing their stories about overcoming and living with these mental illnesses, we still have a long way to go. Not talking about eating disorders and disordered eating only deprives us of the self-awareness and peer support that is crucial in overcoming them.
There are so many other facets of this topic that I have neither the space nor the authority to touch on: the way in which men are just as affected by disordered eating as women are but don’t always see their actions as evidence of a larger problem of disordered eating because of the severe gender bias surrounding the term; the way we glamorize women in the media with eating disorders; the way in which food insecurity can easily exacerbate disordered eating; the guilt that women feel as they try to be capital-E Empowered while still feeling the pressure to conform to male beauty standards.
At this point, I’m aware of and know how to counteract my own worst tendencies. When I feel myself starting to spiral, I start by looking at myself in the mirror and telling myself that I am okay. That I am, in fact, a healthy weight. If that doesn’t work and I still find myself existing on the edge of hunger for the next few days, I schedule my meals so that there is a social pressure to consume food on a regular basis. I have my system, I have friends to support me, and nine times out of 10, it works.
I consider myself lucky—I have had exposure to conversations on disordered eating that have made me aware of my disordered eating, thus allowing me to counteract it when I notice myself getting caught up in these spirals. Through these discussions, I’ve also come to realize that there is a rampant problem on this campus when it comes to the ways that we talk about food, and this problem—much like any other mental health problem—isn’t just going to go away.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, reach out to Columbia Psychological Services 212-854-2878.
Sarah Fornshell is a senior at Columbia College majoring in English and theoretically minoring in history. She is deeply concerned about the eating habits of everyone at Columbia’ including her own. She is a member of Alpha Chi Omega sorority and former deputy editorial page editor for columns. I Do Indeed Give A F*** About The Oxford Comma runs alternate Tuesdays.
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