Lipman: Northwestern needs to do better to support people with eating disorders

Samara Lipman, Op-Ed Contributor

Content warning: This column includes detailed descriptions of eating disorders and mental health issues.

I always suspected I had a problem with eating. However, I didn’t understand the extent. My episodes with disordered behavior used to occur in waves, usually during stressful periods of time: while taking the SAT, applying to college or in preparation for spring break. It wasn’t until the summer before my freshman year that my eating disorder truly began to take over my life.

Anyone who has ever spent time with me knows I often zone out by closing my eyes, virtually leaving a conversation. People ask me if I’m tired or bored. The answer is no. The minute I close my eyes is the minute I lose control of my own thoughts. It is that little voice inside my head telling me to rethink and repeat everything I’ve had to eat. Closing my eyes calms me, makes that voice a little quieter even just for a few seconds.

Throughout my fall quarter at Northwestern, my eating disorder became more intense than ever before. I was unhappy with the group of people that surrounded me and the classes I was taking. I missed my parents and siblings. I struggled to find a balance between being myself and pleasing the people around me.

I became more isolated as the quarter went on. I began exercising at least one time a day. My daily diet consisted of an apple and almond butter for breakfast, an RXBAR for lunch and vegetables for dinner.

I made a secret Amazon account to buy a scale without my parents knowing. I signed up for memberships at SoulCycle, Orangetheory Fitness, Pure Barre and CorePower Yoga. I took laxatives almost every night, taking more pills as the quarter went on.

I left Fall Quarter weighing 113 pounds, when I had weighed almost 130 at the end of my senior year.

During winter break, I was professionally diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Doctors told me I shouldn’t go back to school — my vitals were unstable, my circulation was weak, my weight was unhealthily low and my outlook didn’t show any signs of progress.

I worked to gather a team of specialists to help me with my eating disorder, to help ensure I could come back to school while being in treatment, while still enjoying my freshman experience.

The first few weeks back at school were the same as they had been Fall Quarter. But there were two main turning points that made me realize I needed to change.

I went to the health center the second week after getting back to school and followed the protocol I had become so accustomed to over break: Take off your clothes, put on the gown, go to the bathroom, lay down (get vitals), sit up (get vitals), stand up (get vitals) and finally, step on the scale.

This information was sent home to my family. That afternoon, my mom texted me: “110 pounds. You are going to have to go inpatient facility and miss quarter if you don’t start eating. You are making yourself sick. The doctors are all going to call me tomorrow freaking out and worried that you are down weight.”

The next wakeup call occurred just a few days later. I was in the shower one morning when I suddenly began to feel very dizzy. There were flashes of light, spots surrounding me. As I stumbled back to my room, I dropped my shower caddy and ran to a bathroom stall. I was on the floor of my dorm building, alone, throwing up from dehydration.

I wasn’t sure how I wanted to involve Northwestern with my eating disorder. I expected Eating Disorder Awareness Week to be a time for the University to hold events about advocacy and awareness, or group therapy sessions for people with eating disorders. I wrongly assumed an institution that claims to support its students’ mental health would offer support for diseases that impact more than 30 million individuals in the United States alone.

Northwestern’s Counseling and Psychological Services have deemed this week “Body Acceptance Week.” Their plan for the week? Set a singular table at one location every day for students to “pick up handouts on ways to improve body image, learn about resources for addressing eating disorders and receive a ‘You Are Beautiful!’ sticker.” In addition to this, there is an interactive story wall in Norris and mirror selfie stickers placed around campus.

Asking students to post photos attached to hashtags such as #BodyAcceptanceWeek or #EveryFormofBeauty and infrequently distributing handouts around campus are not the solutions to mental illness. The CAPS website for Body Acceptance Week has a subsection asking students to follow them on Instagram and Facebook — a request that comes before “additional resources” (which are just other handles for body-positive social media accounts), listed at the bottom. Thanks for the offer, but no, I will not be following or friending you any time soon.

The title “Body Acceptance Week” minimizes what people with an eating disorder truly deal with. Primarily, this title implies that people with eating disorders are purely concerned with the way they look. I can confidently say that an eating disorder encompasses much more than just one’s physical appearance. In many ways, it is just the opposite. For me, it is not about how you see yourself, but more so how you think others perceive you. Using this title for the week discounts eating disorders as true mental illnesses.

Secondly, having an eating disorder means having a distorted mind. I cannot just look in the mirror and merely “accept” who I am. My mind controls what my eyes see and how I interpret myself. There is no “on” or “off” switch that I can push to ensure I accept my body. It takes work to wake up every day, look in the mirror and be confident enough to leave my dorm room. I am in a constant battle with that little voice in my head that tells me I am not good enough.

Third, the name of this week fails to recognize the various other illnesses that often impact people suffering from eating disorders. Eating disorders are often accompanied by depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. Throughout my fall quarter, I saw an exponential increase in my own anxiety, depression and patterns of OCD. I was barely sleeping, avoided social interactions and needed every second of every day planned out. This week is not only about accepting your body, but also acknowledging eating disorders for what they truly are: disabling mental illnesses.

Fourth, the descriptions CAPS gives for their apparent “services” are completely gendered. By continuously using words such as “beauty,” a word associated with femininity, the scope of this week is automatically narrowed. Almost all events taking place are geared towards women, especially the “Mirror Selfie Stickers” CAPS has put up around campus. This categorization of eating disorders only reinforces the stereotype that anorexia and bulimia are a white, privileged girl’s disease. By reinforcing this idea, CAPS completely ignores the fact that eating disorders affect all races, ethnic groups and genders.

Northwestern should call this week what it truly is. It has chosen to gloss over eating disorders, branding them instead as body image issues to lessen the intensity of a mental illness. This week discourages people like me: I once considered forming a relationship between my eating disorder and Northwestern. But this campus is obviously not interested in that relationship.

So, Northwestern, if “AND” is in our DNA, why does CAPS make us choose “or?” Can’t I be a student proud to attend Northwestern and a student proud of her mental illness?

Samara Lipman is a Medill first-year. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.