Lunch or Class? Unpacking Eating Disorders

Dani Schlenker, Opinion Columnist

During my sophomore year at Whitman, I noticed new classes being offered at 11:30 a.m., a time slot that hadn’t been previously utilized by most departments. At the time I was seeing a therapist off-campus and we got into a discussion about the possible consequences of these classes.

Most students are already aware of the strain a full class schedule can place on a person’s diet and the detrimental effects this can have on their health. But when students have the option to take classes at noon or 11:30a.m. — 1 p.m., eating a proper lunch can become nearly impossible. During the second semester of my sophomore year I was taking 21 credits, including chorale at noon on Monday, Wednesday and Friday,  a science class Tuesday and Thursday at 11:30 a.m., was rehearsing for a theatre production, participating in two campus committees, and on top of it all was dealing with the after-effects of a multi-year eating disorder. I didn’t have time to sleep, much less eat!

Of course, this overextension was primarily my fault, but the point still stands. If we schedule class times during traditional mealtimes, students are being forced to choose between nutrition and education. Take, for example, Martha, a young fictional student I’m making up to serve my point. Martha has lunch classes every weekday. She is dealing with the treacherous mental peaks and valleys of an eating disorder and does not have the funds to find food outside of the meagre dining hall hours. So, like any student who finds themselves in a schedule bind, Martha makes a choice: she just won’t eat lunch.

Now, for those who have not experienced an eating disorder, let me tell you what I know. There seems to be this collective social idea of what these disorders look like, of young models with huge dark circles under their eyes and heavy eyeliner starving themselves, throwing up in the bathroom, obsessing over the tiniest of details on their bodies until they end up passing out and being sent to the hospital. In reality, people of all genders live through hell every day, fighting a sickness that affects their health, their studies and their relationships.

It’s not a decision that Martha hasmade — she has contracted a mental disease that typically affects young girls and women in our society. We’ve cultivated a collective unconscious that frowns at any sign of cellulite, that whispers behind its hand about thigh gaps and body hair and waist-bust ratios. The consequence of these whispers is a systematized dehumanization of female and male bodies from a ridiculously young age. Bodies are treated like commodities, and off-hand comments about clothing, food and appearance can often blossom disproportionally into a full-tilt, extremely unhealthy hurdle towards the idea of perfection.

The first year of college is already a stressful, nerve-wracking, self-conscious time, not to mention the added burden of negotiating one’s own diet, often for the first time in one’s life. The choice between food and class is not one these young students should be forced to make, and if we only spoke more about the prevalence of these diseases, their insidious, contagious nature, and the death rates of those who have these disorders, maybe we would learn to prioritize our own bodies and our own health instead of constantly judging others for biological processes they often can’t control.