The girl skims The Chronicle and turns to her friend as they rock slightly with the jostling of the East-West bus. "Can you believe this?" she asks. "The Chronicle says one fifth of Duke students struggle with some type of eating disorder. That's ridiculous!" Her friend grimaces slightly and sighs, "I don't even want to think about it. That's just a scare tactic anyway." Suddenly, the bus stops, and the girls walk down the steps, leaving their newspaper alone on the seat.
I heard this conversation a week ago, and the thought that ran through my head was, "Are you kidding me?" To me, The Chronicle simply told it like it is. As a freshman, the Duke experience is still somewhat new to me and my memories of the first days of school all the more vivid. As a graduate of a lower-middle/middle-class public high school in a racially diverse area, I remained sheltered from the frightening reality of eating disorders before I attended Duke. Eating disorders and negative body image equated to urban legends and evoked gasps when we read the Seventeen exclusive "I weighed 90 pounds." Words like "anorexia," "bulimia" and "exercise-bulimia" only appeared in health textbooks, staying far from our daily vernacular. Thin was in, but so was being "thick," and body image issues remained foreign to girls who flaunted their athleticism and their individuality.
Duke is an aesthetically pleasing campus, and I am not merely referring to the Gothic elegance it provides. The Bryan Center Walkway doubles as a runway at times, and creates an elevated standard of beauty. While this certainly has its advantages, this skewed sense of reality can feed the existing flames of self-criticism, self-doubt and, inevitably, an obsession with one's body. At times, I have found myself questioning my place in this uniformly attractive, intelligent and focused group of people. As someone who refuses to buy fashion magazines and spurns the typical "fro-yo and Diet Coke" regime so many male and female Blue Devils swear by, I have, at times, buckled under pressure to maintain a certain physicality and fought feelings of inferiority in a community where the way you look often defines your perceived worth. America is a country where, although obesity is on the rise, images of painfully thin actors and models are looked to as the norm. Duke students mimic these images and match their slightness with Burberry scarves and Louis Vuitton handbags. Girls and guys alike flock to the gym, sculpting and toning their bodies to tight, metabolically efficient machines, and the fear of ostracism manifests contempt for one's "flawed" exterior.
Many would argue that the concern Duke students show for their appearance is healthy. I agree. In general, I see more active, health-conscious people at Duke and many of them are able to leave their minor dissatisfaction with their bodies at just that. However, for those who don't fall in this shrinking bracket, healthy habits can take a dangerous turn, especially in a community which bounds with overachievers and perfectionists. The stresses of school work, social groups, relationships and other various problems abound and students are confronted with issues they have no choice but to cope with. Some self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, some are manacled with depression. And others turn to starvation, binging, purging or over-exercising.
In a place and time where nearly everyone is image-conscious, success and beauty are nearly synonymous with thin and fit. The statistics, however, are not so glamorous. Anorexia is the most deadly psychological illness, with nearly 20 percent of anorexics dying from related causes. Yet we continue to stigmatize it. Men with eating or exercise issues are silenced by the fear of revealing what America typifies as "women's illnesses." Girls come to school only to be sent home weak, depressed and emaciated. Yet, no one says a word. As of today, I refuse to remain silent.
Today marks the beginning of Duke's Celebrate Our Bodies Week, a week in which ESTEEM and other Healthy Devil Peer Educators challenge the Duke community to embrace themselves and each other for who they are, regardless of their physical attributes. This is a week to explore and define your own self-image, while rebuking the mass-media's artificial and contrived images of beauty. Find comfort in knowing that you are perfectly imperfect, that girls have hips, guys have love handles and some of us have a little bit of everything. Go to the gym and, instead of thinking how it can change your body, thank your body for being strong and able. Be aware of self-criticism and counter these thoughts with unconditional self-acceptance. Ask yourself if you are perpetuating or eliminating the mentality that we must adhere to reach impossible physical ideals. Change the statistics. Remember this but, most of all, don't abuse your body, but respect it for what it is, what it does and how the differences that can make us mistreat ourselves also make us the unique people that brought us to Duke in the first place.
Miche Anderson is a Trinity freshman. She is one of the organizers of Celebrate Our Bodies Week.