Prevention Over Intention When it Comes to Eating Disorders

In the past few days, the 5C community has been flooded with
posters, flyers and events that address National Eating Disorder Awareness
Week. Eating disorders and body image are not topics that often appear in
day-to-day conversation, and it is for this reason that the past year has been
noticeably outstanding in terms of raising awareness on these kinds of issues—and for that, we should celebrate. Still, there is one specific part of the
issue that I believe does not get enough attention: why eating disorders exist
in the first place.

One of the problems I saw with the National Eating Disorder
Association’s (NEDA) posters on awareness is that they all focus on early
intervention rather than prevention. To be fair, this is highly understandable, as
prevention is incredibly difficult. Still, it is my personal belief that we
will only truly improve mental health at the 5Cs and lower the prevalence of
eating disorders on campus when we tackle the roots of the problem.

In a digital, highly globalized age, we do not take the time
to value ourselves and are not provided with the time to properly figure out who we
are before we are thrust into a world overrun with responsibilities and
cultural expectations. There is no opportunity to lay a solid foundation for
our own growth, and this shortcoming ultimately creates openings for depression,
anxiety and perfectionism to infiltrate and settle themselves deep within our
psychology.

This kind of mindset begets a culture where the vast majority of students measure their self-worth, potential and value by academic
performance, outward appearance and the judgments and comments of others.

When I arrived at Claremont McKenna College as a first-year, I was already
struggling with anorexia, and the stresses and pressures of college only
worsened it. The situation got serious to the point where I decided to take the
second semester of my first year off to receive treatment at Monte Nido
residential facility. Now, I am proudly recovered, with a tattoo of the recovery
symbol on my arm. However, being back on campus, convalesced and
healthier than ever, has made me realize how prevalent this kind of
disease is in our community.

The way that we talk and act in regard to
ourselves, our bodies and our food can push someone toward an eating disorder
or, conversely, pull them farther away from one. The clichéd (and common) example
would be someone sitting down at dinner saying how lazy and fat they feel. A healthy and secure student will likely regard these complaints
differently than someone who is significantly less secure.

The former would brush these off as describing being tired
and worn out after a long week, whereas the latter might define them as
synonymous with, reinforced by and magnified by the negative weight of self-deprecating
emotions. This is where eating disorders grow and gain momentum: when
self-worth, moral judgments and general likability become paired with the
things we eat, how much we weigh and how we look.

This manifests differently in people, and when combined with some form of anxiety, this disease
creates an overwhelming fear of going beyond ‘acceptable’ eating behaviors. In my case, the stress of
academics could be relieved momentarily when I regimented my meals to the
extreme. The relief would never last, but the momentary solace I felt deluded me
into believing that the more restricted my eating habits were, the better I
would feel.

The comments from other students about how healthy I ate,
how thin I was and, above all, how much they admired my discipline seemed to
validate my disease. So, I kept doing it. I was scared, paralyzed with
anxiety and too submerged in my own mind to realize that what I was doing
wasn’t discipline: It was an addiction.

While it is important to take this week to focus on eating
disorders, it is equally as important to focus more on how we take care of
ourselves as students in general. If I had known that I was valued for who I am
as a human being rather than for my GPA, my weight or how I looked before I
developed disordered eating, I might have never had to go through seven months
of treatment.

The fact is that we all set examples for each other, and at
the end of the day, positive role models and support really are the best
prevention. It may seem backwards, but committing yourself to self-care, body
positivity and affirmative language can actually help other people struggling significantly more than sitting them down to talk with them about their problems or unhealthy mentality. When others see you taking
care of yourself and feel supported in doing the same, they may follow suit by taking the time to look after themselves.

Helping people recover and preventing eating disorders is
simpler than you think, but it’s not easy. Putting in the effort to look after yourself
by practicing positivity is so idealistic in today’s culture and incredibly
difficult in reality. Still, I strongly believe that the drive and persistence
that we as students bring to our internship applications, GPAs and campus
debates can be channeled to protect and take care of our souls.

We can prevent eating disorders, and beyond that, depression
and anxiety as a whole, but it all starts with how we treat and respect
ourselves.

Isabel Wade CMC ’16 is an international relations major with a French dual (minor) hailing from the United States’ chilly northern neighbor.

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