This story contains references to eating disorders that may be troubling to some readers. The author has requested anonymity due to the subject matter.
This past fall, I knew for sure that there was something wrong with me when I heard that Governor’s Corner had a norovirus outbreak. My immediate reaction was to Google “how much weight do you lose from norovirus?” This is not the first time I’ve done something like this. Back in middle and high school, I used to pray that I’d get pneumonia so I couldn’t eat for a month and would subsequently lose ten pounds.
I’ve known that I have had an eating disorder since the start of my sophomore year of high school. I’ve hated my body for much, much longer though, from the first time I struggled to fit into a pair of low-waisted jeans to then ceasing to wear jeans for almost three years. When I was eight or nine my mother told me about a challenge in Asia where women would hold pieces of paper up to their bodies and be called beautiful if they were thinner than them. Even at my lowest weight I don’t think I was ever thin enough, which made me want to cry. I don’t know how it feels to feel comfortable or safe in your body, knowing that what I see in the mirror is what I am in reality.
Millions of college students across America struggle with eating disorders, which means, logically, that around a few hundred probably do at Stanford as well, give or take some. College makes having an eating disorder both incredibly easy and incredibly difficult. We’ll come back to that.
The thing is that I’m supposedly in recovery. The thing is that I’ve been in recovery for two or so years now, but I’m not really in recovery because I’ve never actually talked to a professional about any of this. The thing is that what I call recovery is telling myself that I don’t need to log the calories in every meal I eat, keeping my calorie counter app closed for a few weeks but then inevitably returning to it after some mundane trigger. The thing is that I know I should probably speak to someone, but I don’t want to because I don’t want pity. I just want someone to understand.
And I know how to get someone to understand, sort of. I need to find someone else who’s been in that disorder-recovery middle stage for a while and talk to them. I need to find someone to commiserate with.
Except I can’t do that. Because I don’t want to be the person to trigger someone else’s disorder again, kick it into high gear, because that would make me a bad friend. And I don’t want to be a bad friend, and I don’t want to be a bad person either.
So, I try to talk about it with other people. Except I can’t. I can’t talk about it with any of my high school friends because none of them really knew, even if they suspected it. I don’t have social media as an available outlet because the person I project on there is mostly happy and isn’t the type of person who used to eat Quest bars even though she hated them. (It’s because, if you microwaved them for long enough and cut them into itty-bitty pieces with a fork, they almost tasted like stale cookies.) And at one point I could talk about it with my ex-boyfriend, except then he became an ex-boyfriend, and I quickly realized that an eating disorder isn’t the sort of thing you share with partners in the “talking stages” or situationships. They want to envision the best portrait of you, and a girl who spent her sophomore year of high school meticulously counting steps and taking pictures of every meal doesn’t quite fit into that picture.
So then there’s my one Internet friend who I’ve been venting to about my eating disorder for years, except there’s guilt weighing over me whenever I speak with them too. They’re starting to live a real, true adulthood. I’m sure they want to be free from the grasp of their eating disorder too. So then I resorted to Reddit (r/EDAnonymous), but I don’t post because an old account I used got discovered by another online friend, and I’m scared that will happen again.
But I have friends with eating disorders or who have had eating disorders, and we just don’t really acknowledge it together. Or rather, I don’t talk about my eating disorder because I don’t want to center myself. Besides, I’m also not even at my lowest or even a particularly low weight anymore. Sometimes, I don’t even know if I still have an eating disorder.
But let’s come back to the part about college. It’s very easy to have an eating disorder in college. You can skip meals with the excuse of overlapping classes and convince people you’ve eaten already. You have a great deal of agency over the meals you can eat. There are so, so many options at the dining halls that they’ll make your head spin. The meat is usually so unseasoned or uncooked or dry that you have to go for the vegetarian option, and isn’t going vegetarian something you’ve thought about for a while anyway? The gym is almost always open and it’s both safe and normal to go on late-night jogs.
It’s very difficult to have an eating disorder in college. Everything social revolves around food. There is food at club meetings, at parties and every social event you can possibly think of. Brownies and cookies and ice cream and pizza. All you can eat. And you like to eat, because having an eating disorder usually doesn’t mean you hate food — honestly, it usually means that you like it too much. If you don’t eat, people find it strange. Everyone else is eating. Why aren’t you? Or maybe people don’t find it strange, but you’re scared that they will.
It’s very difficult to have an eating disorder in college. You never use oil when you cook at home, or you at least measure it out when you do. You have measuring cups for rice, noodles and ice cream and tiny bowls and utensils that you feel comfortable eating from. You have no idea how much oil they use in anything here or how much butter. And, of course, there are no calorie counts. Harm reduction is harder than ever. You have a million fear foods and no fear foods, because, if you only have a salad for dinner, people will look at you funny. You know that because every time your friend only has a salad for dinner, you wonder if they have an eating disorder too. Maybe that’s just something wrong with you again.
It’s very difficult to have an eating disorder in college. People, especially men, will feel comfortable sharing with you their pre-workout meals that are right out of a seasoned anorexic’s handbook: dry chicken breast with no flavor and broccoli they force themselves to choke down, bite by bite, and water to fill the aching hunger in their stomachs. But they do it to build muscle, to bulk up, they tell you, and you know it’s not the same because they aren’t absolutely terrified of gaining weight. They’ll even tell you that they’re happy they aren’t stick-thin anymore, which is a concept that you can barely wrap your head around.
It’s very difficult to have an eating disorder in college. You brought along a scale because you’re terrible. Nevertheless, you don’t have a private bathroom and you really don’t want to have to (a) leave your scale in the communal dorm bathroom where someone could trip over it and break their nose or (b) carry your scale in and out of the communal dorm bathroom every morning like the lamest walk of shame on Earth. You don’t know exactly how much you weigh (since you can’t weigh yourself on carpeted floors, which you found out the hard way), so you spiral. You do a lot of wrist checks, which are nice because people without eating disorders have no clue what wrist checks are.
It’s very difficult to have an eating disorder in college. You have so many friends with eating disorders and it hurts you down to your soul. You don’t know how to talk about it. And you really want to — really need to — but you don’t want to be “the person with an eating disorder.” Having an eating disorder is not like having anxiety, at least not in the eyes of others. The latter is common enough and the former makes you pitiable.
It’s very difficult to have an eating disorder in college. You want people to know but you also don’t want them to know. Sometimes you wonder if they know already and just aren’t telling you so you can have some shreds of dignity left.
When I was in high school, I read a book about college applications. One book focused on specific college application stories, and one girl featured in it had an eating disorder. She wrote her college application essay about having an eating disorder, and her college counselor told her that was a risk because colleges don’t want people who might “pose issues.” She was waitlisted at her dream school, though she did eventually get in.
Of course, I only remembered the counselor’s warning and the waitlist. Colleges, and employers, probably, don’t want people who might “pose issues,” and if I were to talk publicly about my eating disorder, I feel — even if it’s not true — as though that’s what I’d forever be. An issue. And beyond just that, it’s not like I’ve ever talked about any of this with my parents. Thus, my mother feels comfortable commenting on the calories in the chicken sandwich I am finally brave enough to eat or telling me that I would look fat in a babydoll dress. I don’t feel comfortable breaking her illusion of me as the perfect daughter. I don’t feel comfortable breaking the illusion of myself either — a girl who mostly has it together, who can balance classes and frat parties and extracurriculars and socializing with friends and budding relationships.
I don’t really know who this is for besides myself. I should probably make it for someone, though, so here it goes: this is for anyone else with an eating disorder and feels alone. This is for anyone else who’s been between recovering and relapsing for years. This is for anyone else who wondered if it would be worth it to get norovirus to lose weight. I wrote this for anyone else who just wants someone to understand.