TW: Eating Disorder
A little bit about our first guest writer...
Darcy (she/her/hers) is a junior at Duke from Chevy Chase, MD studying Public Policy with minors in economics and Spanish. In her free time, Darcy loves to spend time with friends, go on walks outside, listen to John Mayer, and watch Gilmore Girls on repeat. She decided to write this piece because she believes every Duke student should play their part in making this school a better place. She says we all have something to contribute, and if we see our own communities falling short, it’s up to us to call them out and do what we can to help. She hopes that in making herself vulnerable by sharing her story, she can empower other girls who are struggling to get the help they need and feel less alone in this often high-pressure environment.
life on the other side of an eating disorder
Our society is highly selective about what it chooses to normalize. Living in a world of social media, photoshop, and billion-dollar companies that profit off our insecurities, one of the “normal” notions we are accustomed to is always wanting to look a certain way. It’s the notion that there is a good versus a bad body type, and that if we don’t match that ideal, our personal worth is not reaching its full potential.
The issue with normalization is that it can be very hard to combat. Oftentimes, for a widespread belief to be disrupted, enough people of privilege and power have to actively fight against it. But this change is difficult. Because until we realize that others share the same discomfort and resentment, it can be terrifying to speak out against something that everyone else seems to accept as “normal.”
With this understanding, I’d like to take the risk of challenging the normalization of diet culture at Duke.
We all began quarantine with our individual sets of struggles and hardships. Not only were we dealing with the emotional stress of having our lives turned upside down, but lockdowns also brought us face to face with issues that the hustle of day-to-day life had allowed us to ignore. For me, this was my relationship with food.
Upon arriving at Duke, like many other freshmen girls, I was immediately thrown into a party scene that was overwhelming and intimidating. All I wanted to do was fit in and feel confident like everyone else seemed to do with ease. Most of the parties for the first several weeks entailed a girls’ “dress code” of tiny jean shorts, bikini tops, and skintight shirts with minimal coverage. I know this isn’t rare, as party cultures at many schools praise smaller, tighter clothing; however, when it came down to body type, eating, and exercise, Duke cultivated a drastically different dynamic: all three seemed to be a legitimate competition.
Beginning freshman spring, I had this subconscious feeling that something wasn’t right. I regularly skipped meals, working out became something I dreaded rather than enjoyed, and I found myself routinely lying to others about what I was (or wasn’t) eating. When I returned home for breaks, friends and family expressed serious concern about my weight, but I consistently denied any problem because I was so convinced that it was all normal. At school, girls exercised relentlessly, counted calories religiously, and ALWAYS praised thinness. I seemed to be fitting in with the Duke community, so how could anything be wrong?
As time passed, it became harder to keep the weight off. My appearance began to consume my entire headspace, and my overall happiness became solely dependent on the number on the scale. I stopped enjoying meals and I found it hard to connect with some of my best friends. Despite this, I STILL convinced myself that everything was fine. I didn’t think I looked thin enough to have any sort of eating disorder, so I continued to tell myself there was nothing wrong. I endured this mental battle for the next several months… until quarantine came and I reached an unbearable breaking point.
Being stuck in the house with minimal pastimes left me with nothing to distract myself from my relationship with food. I felt completely isolated and out of control, and I realized I needed help before it was too late. I told my parents I was struggling, which was an emotional hurdle in itself; but I was surprised at how appreciative they were for my honesty, and how badly they wanted to help. They did some research, presented me with the options they had found, and enrolled me in a program for eating disorders. I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa and told I would need at least 6-8 weeks of intensive treatment to recover.
And now I’m here, back at school, on the other end of it all.
I’m not sharing this story because I think I’m a special case for having been negatively affected by the Duke eating culture – it’s quite the opposite. I’m sharing it because I think it is representative of a much larger issue here that has yet to be explicitly addressed. In a Bio Statistics lecture last fall, my professor said that 50% of Duke women will experience disordered eating at some point in their undergraduate career. I expected a horrific reaction from my classmates to this news, but no one even winced, and the professor carried on as if he had just listed another meaningless data point. I was horrified. And now, standing on the other side, all I want to do is help the women boxed into that statistic.
Treatment this summer was hard. But it allowed me to shift from black and white vision to a life full of color. My love for food and exercise has returned, I’m able to focus on projects and extracurriculars that I care about, and I have grown so much closer with my family. I am stronger and happier than I have been in what feels like forever, and with every passing day, I become more aware of how deep-seeded this cultural issue truly is. I see so many other girls stuck in the habits that I once clung to, and I’ve realized the overwhelming domination of diet culture in so many aspects of our lives. Every student at Duke is talented and intelligent with an endless list of incredible attributes. Yet so many women are sold short because they’re busy trying to not only perform perfectly, but look perfect, too. It’s downright exhausting, and it’s time we correct the issue rather than trying to change ourselves.
People always say things like, “Oh my gosh, you look so skinny - that top looks so good on you,” or “Holy sh*t these shorts do NOT fit anymore. I need to go on a serious diet,” or “Oh my gosh, you look SO good. Have you lost weight?”
We’re so accustomed to this language that we never call each other out, which makes it even more confusing for those that are having trouble. I had NO idea other people felt the same way I did – I thought my misery was just a strange biproduct of a normal mentality. And quite frankly, were we under regular circumstances, I would never have the nerve to write all of this out. But now, with this mellowed social scene that we’re starting to settle into, I think we have a window of opportunity to re-consider what we want “normal life” to look like down the road.
While we may not be able to alter the cultural expectations that we are surrounded by, we can alter the way we contribute to these standards as individuals. When you say something positive about someone’s appearance, try to avoid equating it with thinness. When you’re offered a second serving of food at a party, think twice about how you respond. And when you outgrow a pair of shorts, remember that your clothing is meant to fit you – not the other way around.
Some people may be upset by the forward, uncomfortable sentiments conveyed in this article. But if this can provide relief or hope to just a handful of girls who are struggling, then sharing my story is worth it. It’s worth it because fitting into those jeans is not worth losing your family’s trust, and looking slim in a photo is not worth failing a test from feeling lightheaded. It’s worth it because sacrificing our core values is not worth striving for an ideal that is biologically unattainable. But most importantly, it’s worth it because the “normal” I was convinced of is making girls seriously suffer. And it’s time we do something about it.