Consuming control: Whitman students, professors talk politics of eating disorders

Rachel Alexander

Last fall, junior Maggie Appleton took a medical leave of absence from Whitman to seek treatment for anorexia. Before leaving, she talked with friends about the disease and found that many of them had very little idea of the reasons people develop eating disorders.

“It’s like, ‘Kate Moss caused this’ and you’re like, ‘Well, it’s more complicated,'” she said.

The line between healthy behavior and disordered eating can be razor thin. Physical fitness and healthy eating habits are presented as an ideal to aspire towards, and women in particular are bombarded with advertisements telling them that they can be perfect if they just count calories diligently and work hard to shed those last few pounds.

Whitman students are taught in class and the dining halls that our food choices have broad political and environmental implications that we should be conscious of. Add to this the challenges of trying to be healthy in a culture where most food sold in grocery stores is processed, packaged and full of chemicals, and it’s not so hard to see how people end up developing pathological relationships with food and their bodies.

Yet eating disorders resist the simple explanations so often used to explain their prevalence. While some people in recovery from eating disorders say that they wanted to lose weight or resemble the “ideal” Western body, just as many point to fears of food, general stress and anxiety, depression, or a desire to control some aspect of their lives.

Infographic by Ted Hendershot

Food as control

Appleton said that her anorexia was triggered by stress and other psychological factors, but that a fear of processed foods also played a significant role.

“They just do this thing where they take all these foods and put fat and salt and sugar in everything and put a cute cartoon character on it, and that’s all that the Safeway shelves are stocked with,” she said.

“[I felt like] there was nothing I could put in my body that was produced in this country that wouldn’t give me diabetes and a heart attack and destroy my immune system and have high fructose corn syrup in it. It got down to where I didn’t think I could eat anything anymore if it wasn’t just an apple, because everything was going to be dangerous and processed and awful.”

During her worst period, when she was eating less than 300 calories a day, anorexia dominated her thoughts.

“When your rational mind isn’t getting enough calories to function properly, it just defaults to the irrational, unconscious eating disorder mind,” she said. “It was a very physical thing that happened in my brain. You’re not really there. You just stop existing.”

Eating disorders can serve as a distraction from other problems in a patient’s life because of their all-consuming nature.

“When you’re dealing with it, you can only see it,” sophomore Katie Tertocha said. “It covers up everything else that’s unmanageable.”

Tertocha struggled with anorexia in high school. For her, the eating disorder started as an effort to exercise more and be healthier. Then it became an obsession. She eventually wound up in the hospital for treatment, and was able to start gaining weight again. But she said during the worst phases of the disease, it was hard to think rationally about her body.

“There’s never an endpoint for it,” she said. “You can always be thinner. You can always be better.”

Normalizing disorder

Cultural standards of beauty do play a significant part in many disordered eating behaviors.

“Though eating disorders are complex psychological and physiological phenomena, body image is the piece that is especially influenced by social norms,” Associate Professor of religion and Director of the gender studies program  Melissa Wilcox said  in an email. “There has been research, for instance, that tested women’s body image before and after reading a popular fashion magazine like Cosmo, and found a significant drop in their satisfaction with their own bodies.”

Junior Avery Potter has struggled with bulimia since high school, though she has mostly recovered. She said that she started purging largely because she was afraid of becoming fat.

“I felt horrible when I ate so much,” she said. “I couldn’t not eat, but I could control what stayed down.”

Senior Sarah Johnston* said she also felt pressure to be thinner throughout high school, and would sometimes go to pro-anorexia websites to get inspiration for losing weight.

“There were definitely times when I would look at these [sites] and say, ‘That’s a good idea. That’s how I’m going to lose weight,'” she said. Although she didn’t develop an eating disorder, Johnston went through a period of depression and self-harm, which she said was largely influenced by dissatisfaction with her body.

Appleton stressed that eating disordered behavior can’t be understood only as a desire to be thin.

“Never in my life have I sat around and said, ‘If only I was a size zero . . . ‘ Never did I want that,” she said. “Everyone paints [anorectics] as obsessed with their bodies and not able to see beyond the value of how they look, but [in some cases] it’s an issue of food and not an issue of how you appear.”

Peers can often influence the way eating disordered people perceive their disease. Senior Ellie Newell was bulimic for several months in high school, and said that she felt eating disordered behavior was normalized by her classmates, who were thinner than her and frequently discussed their own body image insecurities.

Appleton said that she’s had periods of eating disordered behavior since she was 14, and agrees that her peers normalized obsessions with diet and weight.

“It was seen as the norm, almost,” she said. “You would go through a rough period and you would abuse food and you would gain a few pounds and then you would sort yourself out.”

Wilcox believes that our culture sends mixed messages about disordered eating.

“In many ways, I think there is a subtle affirmation: even while we claim to disapprove: of anorexia in our culture,” she said. “Bulimia is less favorably looked upon, I think, while compulsive overeating is often popularly associated with gluttony, and is blamed on a lack of control on the part of the overeater: again, connecting back, I think, to the subtle cultural valorization of anorexia. This also sends the message that there is appropriate control of one’s food and one’s body, and then there is inappropriate control.”

Although body image and weight concerns are often perceived to only affect women, men also feel pressure. In a Pioneer survey of 192 students, 75 percent of male respondents said they felt pressure to be thin from American popular culture, and 42 percent felt pressure from their peer group.

Sophomore Brad Larkin* said that he has been influenced by the images of men presented in American culture.

“Even if you’re not outright saying, ‘That guy has a great body and I don’t,’ it’s in the back of your mind,” he said.

Larkin became anorexic in high school and struggled with the disease for a year and a half, eventually dropping to a weight of 85 pounds. Although he has since recovered, he doesn’t like to talk about it, and says that having an eating disorder is often perceived as a sign of weakness.

“A lot of times, it’s hard to talk about with people because it goes against the expectations of what an eating disorder is,” he said. “The amount that it affects guys is ignored.”

Nationally, approximately 10 percent of individuals seeking treatment for eating disorders are men, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.

The Whitman effect

Assistant Director of Counseling Tracee Anderson said that the gender breakdown of Whitman students who seek treatment for disordered eating roughly corresponds to the national average. According to her, eating disorders are the fourth most commonly discussed problem during counseling sessions (after depression, general developmental issues and anxiety). Anderson believes that eating disorders are often a symptom of people defining their self-worth in terms of outside forces, such as grades or athletic ability.

“A lot of people talk about the word ‘control’. When somebody has very high expectations of themselves and their sense of value is defined externally, their sense of themselves is fragile, and they can often be very insecure. The need for control is born out of that. People believe, ‘If I control all these things outside of me, then I’m gonna be intact. I’m gonna be ok.’ It’s an effort to try to keep themselves together,” she said.

Newell believes that Whitman culture can play into these expectations by creating an environment where high achievement is expected.

“Whitties are pretty tightly wound as a bunch. We’re expected to be everything: amazing athletes, amazing scholars, both the responsible scholar student who will be in the library at 10am on a Saturday morning and also the person who was out until 3am the night before drinking. There’s a lot of balls that we’re expected to keep juggling.”

The survey results agree with Newell’s assessment, with 83 percent of respondents saying they feel pressure from the Whitman community to be involved in many activities, and 71 percent that they feel pressure to be accomplished.

With so many potential causes for stress, most Whitman students need coping mechanisms. Appleton said that her anorexia came out of a need to manage her stress.

“It’s a really dark place inside you trying to find any way to be destructive,” she said. “This dark thing inside you that latches onto to any way it can to express itself. It might happen to be food, but other people do it with alcohol or other ways that are more socially acceptable and just kind of seen as normal. All the people that binge drink every weekend to deal with their problems; they’re just seen as college students.”

Because of the misconceptions surrounding eating disorders, most Whitman students who have struggled with them are reluctant to share their experiences. Potter said she felt that she would be alone if she opened up about her bulimia.

“I feel like a lot of people here would have sympathy, but they wouldn’t have empathy,” she said.

All of the students interviewed for this article said they felt that Whitman students were generally concerned about eating disordered behavior, and likely to notice problems with their friends. However, they also said that information and discussion about eating disorders is almost completely absent from the campus environment. Johnston attributed this absence in part to the fact that eating disorders don’t generally come up in classes, in the way that many other social problems do.

“There’s not really much academic literature or scholarship about it,” she said.

Anderson encouraged students who are struggling with food and body issues to come into the counseling center and seek help.

“I wish more people would come in when they’re starting to struggle, because the earlier you intervene, the greater the prognosis,” she said. “It just kills me to think they’re carrying that burden alone.”

Tertocha hopes to start a body image discussion group to help raise awareness and provide a safe space for students struggling with these issues to talk. Although it wasn’t the only factor that contributed to her eating disorder, she believes that positive body image can help people who are working through eating disorders.

“If I’d been able to accept my body for what it was, the eating disorder voice would have gotten less powerful,” she said.

Appleton also wants to raise awareness by speaking honestly about her experiences. For her, the first step is not being ashamed.

“This isn’t a moral failing on my part,” she said. “This is a complicated thing that wasn’t a choice. No one would choose this. I want to challenge people’s assumptions about what kinds of people have this disease.”

She said that reactions from her friends and peers have been positive, and that she’s optimistic about her recovery.

“I feel pretty confident that it’s not going to go south again,” she said. “I have a lot of support.”

*Name has been changed

As part of the research for this article, 192 students participated in a survey about their relationships with food and body image. View the results here.