Editor’s Note: This piece includes graphic descriptions of disordered eating that some readers may find distressing.
At Princeton, where the rush of campus life is unpredictable and the pressure to perform is severe, eating disorders run rampant. I would know.
Fifteen calories for the spinach, 80 for the apple, five for the raw mushrooms, maybe 40 for the beet salad? I mentally calculate the calories for each item as I cruise through the Rocky lunch line, repeating the final tally to myself so that I can log it in my app later. I don’t want to log my food in front of my friend.
For four years, this was my daily routine. I counted, restricted, lost weight, sometimes binged, and repeated. I ran myself to exhaustion on the Dillon Gym treadmill. I bound myself by bizarre rules. And I was absolutely miserable.
This obsession extended far beyond an addiction to logging calories on my phone — it has been debilitating to my mind and crippling for my body. My hair fell out in gobs, my legs were peppered with mysterious bruises, and the vision in my right eye even became blurry. I couldn’t concentrate in classes, and I felt like a fog had enveloped my brain. I sat silent in meetings — not from shyness, but because I could not form a coherent thought.
The hopeful zeal that had brought me to Princeton had dulled. I was weary, body and mind.
I write this not to shock or to garner sympathy. I write this because this is not just my reality; this is also the hidden reality of myriad others, and it is a reality that can kill. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, as many as one in five women and one in 10 men suffer from full-blown eating disorders in college. On the University’s campus, this could mean that as many as 540 people who identify as female, and 270 who identify as male, are suffering — nearly 1,000 undergraduate students. And this ignores the countless other students who struggle with body image, weight control, or disordered eating tendencies.
To reiterate, eating disorders kill. Individuals in their 20s with an eating disorder are 18 times more likely to die than a healthy individual of the same age. Malnutrition also decreases bone density, lapses heart function, and halts sex hormone production, among many other severe health concerns. Fellow students who, like me, have spent years eating too little and exercising too much are quite literally shaving years from their lives and welcoming broken bones and serious cardiovascular issues.
Eating disorders do not center solely on the glorification of thinness, though they are fueled by it. Instead, eating disorders develop from the intense desire to control. I write this now because the COVID-19 pandemic has wrenched control from our hands — no longer do we have the freedom to go where we want and do as we please. While I am fortunate to have a stable home, many others do not. Many students have returned to homes where they have little say in the food available, no access to gyms or other facilities, and increased rates of depression and anxiety from isolation. For some of us, the prospect of remaining at home for yet another semester is terrifying. For others, the return to campus in the fall represents a return to the unpredictability of University dining. When what you eat is your only sense of control, the chaos of pandemic is life-threatening.
Secluded from in-person support, victims can also hide their reality more easily. Eating disorders thrive on secrecy, and now that secret is easier to keep. Left unchecked and vulnerable, sufferers spiral and suffocate further as they grasp at some semblance of control. Trapped at home, they are left to suffer in silence.
Yet even in the pandemic-less world, it is not always outwardly apparent that someone is struggling. Admitting you have a problem feels embarrassing and even weak. The voice inside you may berate you and call you a failure for seeking help. This is what makes eating disorders so brutal; they are disorders of the mind, desperate attempts at control. When these disorders are so pervasive, obstructing learning and wrecking bodies, it is imperative that we start talking about EDs and destigmatize the supposed shame of having one.
So talk. Even if you personally do not suffer from disordered eating, normalize it in conversation. Raise awareness for the resources on and off campus — the Eating Monologues, ED support groups, and Counseling and Psychological Services. Perhaps your discussion, in addition to my revelation, will encourage others who are suffering to take the plunge and confide in a trusted friend or therapist. The road to recovery is not linear, as I well know. But that recovery is certainly achievable, and it is not something you can battle alone.
You can heal, and you can live. Life is too short to be worried about the calories in an apple.
Emma Treadway is a junior in the Classics department. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.