Sometimes, I can’t believe that the most difficult experience of my entire life has been learning how to eat. One would assume that eating is an instinctual human behavior. Yet, looking back, my eating disorder was so all-consuming that what I remember most about my first three years of college is not long dorm conversations or mind-blowing classes at Columbia, but rather thinking constantly about food.
It is a myth that in order to have an eating disorder, you must be a skinny, white, middle-to-upper class girl who exhibits certain behaviors like pushing away her food when other people are watching or only eating soup and carrot sticks. But eating disorders are so diverse—both in their symptoms and in whom they affect—that oftentimes, you can’t even tell when someone has a serious problem.
I write this article because there are so many people at Columbia, all incredible, ambitious, wickedly smart people, who have eating problems and might not even know it, like how I didn’t even realize for four years because I was so worried about trying to achieve “great things.”
Eating disorders are, ultimately, a form of mental illness. There are of course physical indicators, like being extremely underweight, but the true hell of having an eating disorder is invisible. It’s about feeling guilty and wanting to die and hating yourself because you had a piece of cake, or secretly bingeing at night because you are so hungry from not eating during the day. The truth is that, for the most part, you can’t tell by someone’s appearance whether or not they have an eating disorder. One of the most frustrating things for me was when people believed I was “over” my problem simply because I wasn’t a walking skeleton anymore. Eating disorders develop when you have anxiety about eating, period. This can lead to under-eating, throwing up, excessively working out, bingeing, planning your day around food, or a combination of the above, as was the case for me.
Oftentimes we reduce eating concerns to simply “trying to look good” or “trying to feel in control.” But this disorder, like a drug addiction, is a way to deal with problems that we often don’t even realize we have. For me, it was a whole range of issues, like feeling uncomfortable because I looked and felt different from my white female classmates.
In that way, everyone can be susceptible to eating problems. Black women, Native American women, and Hispanic women all have eating disorders, oftentimes brought about by a need to fit into a world that is predominantly white. More men than we want to admit have eating disorders, too. One study shows that about a quarter of anorexia patients are male, as well as 36 percent of binge eating disorder patients. The same pressure that women feel to have the “perfect” body affects men, too, but most research and resources have a significant gender bias.
Just as the election caused a lot of stress for people last week, events in history can influence eating disorders, too. In the case of Asian women like me, for example, food shortages around the time of World War II caused a lot of collective trauma that has been passed down to the women of today. In China and Korea, historical memory of food shortages and famine has left behind an idea that eating is associated with well-being. And in some Asian cultures, “Have you eaten?" is synonymous with "How are you?" Young people today often feel that their grandmothers and grandfathers may shame them about “wasting” food.
I used to laugh when people said, “Skinny is not healthy,” because I thought only “fat” people said that. But it really isn’t healthy. Being underweight—a condition most people don’t even question, because our world is so obsessed with being skinny—can produce horrible effects. My hair stopped growing, my heart shrunk, and I developed a cardiovascular problem, I had frequent crying spells, and I could never concentrate because I was always so hungry. For context, as a first-year I weighed significantly less than I do now, and people still told me I looked “great,” which of course, “fed” the problem even more.
Eating disorders are incredibly lonely. Unlike a drug or alcohol problem, you can never quit eating, cold turkey. You have to constantly fight for sanity in an environment in which you are expected to eat every single day, multiple times a day. And because eating is so normal, it’s embarrassing to talk about it with other people because, even if they want to, oftentimes they can’t understand the problem.
There is a saying that once you have an eating disorder, you can immediately spot anyone else with one. It’s true. Now whenever I go to a restaurant, it’s completely obvious to me when someone sitting at a nearby table has a problem and can’t enjoy their meal.
I suggest that everyone reading this ask themselves, “Do I obsess about food?” If the answer is yes, you might have a problem, no matter what you look like. But know that there are people who can and will help you, and, even if you think you will never be able to get over it—as I thought for so long, resulting in my most miserable semester ever—you can. And although recovery is wickedly painful, sometimes even physically—with constant bloating and nausea in the refeeding process if you have to adjust to a healthy weight—it’s worth it.
Food is nourishment. By depriving yourself of a healthy relationship with food, you reduce the quality of your whole life. I wouldn’t exactly say that I am grateful for my problem, but I would say it made the phrase “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” come to life for me. As Rumi said, “The wound is where the light enters.” I learned about my emotional limits, my friendships, my body, my deepest fears, and my greatest strengths. You learn a lot about yourself, from the inside out.
Anna Raskind is a senior in Columbia College studying English. Annalytical runs alternate Fridays.
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