This week is Celebrating Our Bodies Week, a Duke version of NEDA’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Hosted by our local chapter of the international nonprofit Body Banter, this week will feature an assortment of events focused on educating students about disordered eating and eating disorders, as well as promoting student-led body image activism.
As someone who has dealt with EDs for almost seven years, I wish I could say my intentions for getting involved with Body Banter were purely altruistic. In reality, I helped to re-establish the group out of my own self-preservation. After two years of hardcore counseling during the pandemic, I came flying into college with full force on a jetpack of Health at Every Size™ articles and self-love affirmations. But, as I’m sure professors, counselors, and WebMD have told you, college is a difficult transition, and the challenges of adapting to a stressful environment inevitably affect how we take care of ourselves.
I quickly realized that the “work hard, play hard” culture that attracted me to Duke was merely a euphemism for burnout, and I learned why the pervasive “effortless perfection” myth originated from Duke. I was immersed in a campus food environment where disordered eating was not only the aspiration, but the norm, where students prided themselves in their ability to live full lives on empty stomachs, where skipping breakfast was cooler than skipping class, and somehow everyone was a multi-sport athlete who fueled their workouts with nothing but iced vanilla lattes.
So I crashed. Instantly.
Now, I know that story of the freshman blues isn’t unique. And with up to 20% of women in college and up to 10% of men struggling with eating disorders in college, I know the ways I coped with that stress isn’t unique either. Yet, I still couldn’t tell anybody I was binge eating. I couldn’t tell anybody about the late nights of mechanically swiping my Duke card at the Bell Tower vending machine like a dating app, trying to hide the wrappers in my desk drawer. I couldn’t tell my friends that I missed their party because I’d bought and eaten six slices of cheesecake from The Loop, much to the shock and disgust of the shift manager. Or after my first Countdown to Craziness when I downed a whole box of cereal trying to recover from the sensory overwhelm of a packed Cameron stadium. Or how one of my teachers never received their Christmas chocolate box; I think you can figure out why.
I couldn’t make anyone understand that level of guilt and embarrassment when you wake up the morning after, coming to terms with the entirety of what you’ve done. The severe headaches and fatigue. How all your farts smell weird (very important). How you feel like you have an addiction to the one thing you can’t abstain from. How to wrap your head around the fact that somehow you got accepted to the redneck cousin of the Ivy League, yet still don’t know how to eat food like everyone else.
For me, it’s especially confusing because I know what it’s like to have anorexia. I know what it’s like for a blind lady in India to say you’re too thin. I’ve known what it’s like to recover from that. Twice. When my EDs erred on the restrictive side, I was paradoxically met with support both before and during my recovery. People complimented my body when it was a lot leaner and praised my “healthiness” and “discipline” towards food. Yet, while I was recovering people complimented my supposed “bravery” and how much “healthier” I now looked, whatever that means.
But binge eating is different. When you tell people you binge eat, they get confused and disgusted. Or they say something like, “oh yeah, sometimes I get cravings for ice cream at night, too.” Part of it is because most people don’t recognize binge eating disorder as a real ED, despite being three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. Part of it is an issue of semantics too, in the ways we tend to overuse the word “binge”, especially in the context of entertainment, to the point where it may lose some of its clinical severity. And part of it is the implicit biases we have around nutrition and weight, in which people wrongly believe that EDs are a byproduct of a “bad” body size, rather than a destructive set of behaviors.
Selfishly, I wanted Body Banter to be a space where I’d feel less alone. Where I could say to someone who was not a paid medical professional that I drowned my stress in two pints of Ben and Jerry’s, and that even though I tell everyone I’m vegan sometimes more sinister omnivorous instincts take over. Where we could talk about the fact that most binge eating disorders result from chronic dieting, and that most people binge as a result of food restriction and not a so-called lack of self-control. I don’t think we’re there yet as an organization, but we’re really close, and the biggest obstacle has been the stigma around ED that still pervades our campus. Even just writing this paragraph I can’t help but feel a little queasy. But that's also because many years of binge eating can mess up your digestion pretty badly.
I encourage you to attend some of the Celebrating Our Bodies Week events this week, or at the very least take some time to think about your own relationship towards food, movement, and your body. I know thinking about those things can seem awkward, superficial, and often silly; after all, there are a lot more important problems to reflect on than our own mirror reflection. But in case you weren’t aware, all of us have bodies, all of us need to take care of our bodies, and it took me way too long to realize that all bodies are deserving of being cared for, including my own. Perhaps, if we can reevaluate how we treat ourselves, we can treat each other a little better.
Monika Narain is a Trinity sophomore. Her columns typically run on alternate Fridays.
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