Discussing Our Plate

Lyra Seaborn ‘22

For most first-years, the transition to college is terrifying. On one hand sits the pressure to make new friends and fit in. On the other, mountains of readings, essays, and seemingly impossible assignments. Yet for many students, the scariest place on campus is not a party or the classroom. It’s the dining hall.

A few years ago, I would have fallen into this group. I developed anorexia my freshman year of high school and began treatment a week before I started sophomore year. In the following months, I was also diagnosed with anxiety and depression and prescribed medication. Thanks to my nutritionist, therapist, and the little blue pill I swallow every morning, I entered college mentally and physically healthy enough to live and thrive on my own. 

Despite my fierce devotion to self-care and knowledge accumulated from years of nutritionist appointments, even I find many aspects of the college experience triggering. From jokes about the “freshman fifteen” to comments on how “healthy” or “unhealthy” the food is at Commons to comparisons of workout schedules, I’ve noticed that diet culture is alive and well at Davidson. 

While Orientation did a great job informing us of the mental health services on campus, specific information on eating disorders remained largely absent. Posters in the dorms list numbers for various physical and emotional crises, yet the National Eating Disorders Association helpline – (800) 931-2237 – is missing. 

We need to be directly addressing the warning signs, symptoms, and treatment resources for eating disorders because they are rampant in our society and can have devastating consequences. According to the Eating Disorder Coalition, at least one person dies every 62 minutes as a result of an eating disorder; in fact, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Detecting disordered tendencies in a friend or even oneself can be difficult due to the numerous misconceptions surrounding eating disorders. Anorexia and bulimia aren’t the only conditions – also included are orthorexia (an obsession with eating “healthy”), exercise bulimia (over-exercising to “purge” food), and more. Although eating disorders are typically associated with women, about 1 in 3 people suffering from one is male. Not all people with an eating disorder display the stereotypical emaciated appearance: someone can be a normal weight or even overweight and still be struggling with any one of the numerous illnesses that exist. 

Our society’s emphasis on “clean eating” and “light” or “guilt-free” meal alternatives makes it even harder to determine whether one is simply trying to improve their health or if their behavior is slipping into something dangerous. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 35% of “normal” dieters progress to pathological dieting, and of those, 20–25% develop partial or full-symptom eating disorders. In my case, I didn’t realize I was sick for months because diet culture and “fitspo” communities on social media fooled me into thinking my behavior was healthy. 

So what can be done?

While treatment is crucial in fighting eating disorders, equally important, if not more so, is raising awareness and engaging in open dialogue. The stigma surrounding mental illness can make it embarrassing to reveal your struggles and stand up for yourself, but one of the best decisions I made was telling my friends about my past and letting them know what triggers me. But slip-ups do happen, and I have plenty of ammunition ready for when they do. If someone I’m with characterizes a food as unhealthy, I will eagerly educate everyone in the vicinity on the fallacies of the diet industry. However, advocating for your mental health doesn’t have to be so bold. It can be as simple as changing the subject when people around you start talking about food or their bodies. 

Whether or not you have recovered or continue to suffer from an eating disorder, do your part to fight diet culture for the sake of your own mental health and that of those around you. Stop describing yourself as “bad” for grabbing a brownie at dinner. Stop commenting on other people’s bodies or food choices, whether the observations are complimentary or not. Stop those around you from doing these things too. There are so many topics more interesting and productive to discuss than the nutritional makeup of one’s lunch or how much someone weighs.

Food is culture, history, and a way to bond with others. Food is sometimes indescribably delicious and at other times unimaginably repulsive. Food can be a career, a passion, or a mere hobby. And ultimately, food is fuel. What it should not be is a source of torment. If it is, for you or anyone in your life, reach out.

Lyra Seaborn ‘22 is an undeclared student from Austin, Texas. Contact her at emseaborn@davidson.edu

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