Before arriving at college, you hear warnings—from parents, classmates and maybe even teachers—about the terrifying “Freshman 15”: go to college, gain weight. The warnings might seem harmless, but it matters that we present weight gain as a problem to avoid. More than incoming college students are warned to watch out for their GPA, their alcohol consumption and their quality of character, they are warned not to gain weight.
Worrying about our weight is something young women do long before our freshman year. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that signals of weight-consciousness and poor body image affect girls as early as first grade. Demi Lovato, the former Disney Channel star who has publicly discussed her lifelong struggle with eating disorders, remembers feeling body shame when she was just 4 years old.
I was 16 when Demi entered treatment and announced that she suffered from bulimia. Although my own bulimia had not yet set in, I still identified profoundly with the story that she told: growing up with abysmal self-esteem; never feeling good enough, pretty enough, skinny enough; and coping, often in self-destructive and dangerous ways, with the depression and anxiety that accompanied those feelings.
Her story, however, was like a single firefly in an otherwise black night sky. The media’s coverage of her struggle was encouraging, but it was dwarfed by everything else being presented in our culture—by the uniform size of every woman on TV; by the baffling, heated debate over whether swimsuit model Kate Upton was “fat”; by offhand comments from friends and family about how “huge” the petite Kim Kardashian was while eight months pregnant.
I soaked this in, becoming more convinced with each remark that the world must detest my appearance—so I did too. If the tiny Kardashian women still faced ridicule for too-big butts and baby weight, my sizable derriere must be horrendous. If a tall, slim girl at school was mocked for the cellulite on her thighs, my legs must be disgusting. If a friend felt so fat as a size six that she decided she couldn’t have sex until she lost 10 pounds, I must not be entitled to any kind of sex life given my wardrobe of sizes eight, 10 and 12.
I couldn’t help the comparisons. Every physical critique I heard, whether on TV or in real life, I took personally. By the time I entered college, I was the smallest I’d ever been since hitting puberty—a result of modest weight loss from diet and stress. Even then, I felt inadequate. I weighed 145 pounds—an all-time low for my 5’6” frame—but all I could see were the size-zero girls who looked like runway models and mesmerized boys. I wanted to be smaller so desperately that I plunged into a dark period of depression and anxiety, which eventually led to my ED systems of compulsive binging and purging.
The media’s cultural cues certainly play a large role in delivering the messages that lead young women like me, or Demi, to develop eating disorders. However, we can’t say the media is the only influence. It is easy to turn on The Bachelor, point a finger at the eager, skinny women clamoring for male attention, and claim to have found the culprit for our ED epidemic. It is much harder, however, to look at our friends, our peers, and ourselves and acknowledge that we, too, are part of the problem.
February 22–28 marks National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and as college students, we need to stop feigning “awareness” of EDs and start showing through our actions that we recognize the ways we encourage ED culture. We have real work to do, and high-fiving one another for picking up cheery stickers that say “Recovery Is Beautiful!” on the way to class is not going to cut it.
One of the most dangerous ways we fail our peers who are at risk for an ED is by believing and acting like weight loss is always a positive thing. A friend of mine recently came close to developing anorexic symptoms when, after she lost weight—from an already small frame—due to illness, she began receiving compliments and congratulations for her shrinking body. That feedback encouraged her to maintain her unnaturally small figure, despite the tolls it took on her health.
This is something I have personally experienced. While I was battling bulimia, I saw my doctor twice in a week for disorder-related blood-work. In the five days separating my appointments, I lost three pounds; when the nurse weighed me at my second appointment, she congratulated me for it.
It is high time that we internalize a new message: Neither weight loss nor weight gain is inherently good or bad. We are not automatically better, more worthy people if our asses get smaller, our cellulite more subtle or our dress size a lower number. Our refusal to acknowledge that and to stop making evaluative comments on others’ bodies is not just rude or insensitive, it hurts people. As many as 40–60 percent of adolescent girls, according to NEDA, use “crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives” to manipulate their weight and as a result, we face serious, life-threatening health consequences. Hurt feelings are only a fraction of what’s at stake here.
Being mindful of the ways we think and speak about bodies is an easy but important way for us to dismantle our eating-disorder culture. I can’t say it would have prevented my ED—it is, after all, a serious mental illness—but I firmly believe that the messages I received in my adolescence took a heavy toll on me.
During this year’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I ask that we start making change and stop being complacent. Instead, we must be compassionate. Be constructive. Be better. We all deserve it.