The day still haunts me: her face turning deathly pale despite mid-July heat, her lips gray and quivering, and my own panicked despair at being unable to help her, as she collapsed onto the steamy street in Rome. I called the ambulance and her parents. I blamed her dieting, stupid TV shows, and social standards. But deep inside my heart, I knew I, too, was complicit.
All the calorie-counting, sudden model-thinness and rapid changes in her mood always felt wrong, but I was, in my self-centeredness, so scared of how our cheerful, girly life would be ruined by her being in trouble that I pretended the trouble did not exist.
Anorexia is produced by a toxic culture of morbid over-fixation on so-called bodily perfection and rigorous restriction of an individual’s essential nutritional needs. It should not be reduced to an individual’s struggle with self-loathing. It is a collective cultural problem that needs a preemptive strike.
According to the National College Health Assessment, in 2017, 3.5 percent of 1,190 New School students, surveyed by Student Health Services suffered from anorexia and 9.5 percent of students were underweight.
These disturbing results are unlikely to reflect the true scope of anorexia’s spread, given the frequent instances of victims’ underreporting.
Following the policies of FERPA/Privacy Laws, SHS is not allowed to inform students’ friends, faculty members or advisors about an individual’s health problems without their permission. In a situation where people often try to conceal or deny their disease, active peer involvement becomes the only sure strategy to provide timely help.
“Secrecy and shame are two symptoms of the disease. For many individuals struggling, it is the pain they know, and the thought of recovery is terrifying and might seem impossible,” said Rachel Happ, who graduated from the Parsons School of Design Strategies in 2011 and founded Cashmere Foundation, a non-profit organization, focusing on the eating disorder recovery process. “Treatment is critical.”
Individuals suffering from anorexia despise the instincts of self-preservation. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, only 0.1 percent of anorexics ask for professional help, while twenty percent of those who are not getting treatment do not survive. We have little doubt justifying public intervention when preventing suicides; how is anorexia different?
As a community, we need to realize the unbearable costs of our passivity. “If you don’t get support you can end up leaving the school because you are so weak,” said Rachel Knopf, director of Wellness and Health Promotion. “We definitely have hospitalized people with eating disorders at the New School, because they’ve been really, really sick, in danger of dying”.
Tacitly or not, we almost worship visual appearance, using it as a measure of personal worthiness, which increases people’s vulnerability to developing anorexia. “For a time I felt like I lived and worked in an environment that rewarded my disease instead of discouraging it,” said Charlotte Durkee, a senior BFA drama major who experienced anorexia. “I didn’t think I was doing any harm.”
“It is like I am swimming the opposite direction of other people. I hear my friends talking about thinness and criticizing their bodies all of the time,” said Rebecca Tobaly, a former New School, who is now recovering from anorexia. “I just have to remind myself that I choose to be kind to myself.”
The fact that this affirmation of thinness is often unconscious does not render us any less complicit. We possess the means to alter the campus culture, but too often, we remain indifferent.
Our actions can save lives.
Facebook and Instagram are abundant with pictures of pseudo-fit girls who seem to have sacrificed their health on the altar of virtual popularity. How many times have you ‘liked’ a very skinny celebrity, wondering if she was born with such a tiny physique or has been starving to achieve this body image? Have you ever unfollowed them?
“Social media does promote unrealistic ideals,” said Tobaly. “It is still hard when I see these Instagram models diet or talk about juice cleanses because I still wish I could do that.”
By supporting those accounts, we consolidate anorexia’s grip over its victims and trigger a vicious cycle of imitation. We should better filter what we promote on the web, and foresee the impact it causes. You may be able to understand that those protruding ribs and tiny wrists cannot be healthy. Your friend: not necessarily.
“Many students tell me that “you look good/healthy/great” often means ‘you look fat’ to them,” said Knopf. “It’s generally a good practice not commenting on people’s bodies, and weight, and looks”.
Some “pro-ana” activists seek to defend anorexia’s right to existence, calling it “a lifestyle, not a disease.” However, voluntarily choosing a certain mode of behavior ideally requires a full realization of possible consequences. The quality which those, people who experience the disorder often lack this awareness.
“For me, my not eating was a positive act for my future, I didn’t think of it as an action that would result in me not being alive,” said Durkee.
We have no right to condemn these people to fight their demons alone. We should stay alert and intervene once damaging signs surface. We should be more attentive during class discussions, on Facebook forums, in sports clubs, on parties, and at home.
And crucially, having discovered our friend’s struggles, we need to provide love, not judgment. There is no time to be afraid to help. “As a peer, if you see someone struggling, never approach them with blame. Simply let them know that you are there for them, and ready to listen and support them no matter what,” said Happ.
I paid no attention when my friend expressed disgust over the gelato she once loved, nor to her fitness obsession and recurrent depression. Instead, I validated the disorder by praising her weight loss. When she started passing by the near pharmacy after every lunch – I would wait outside, more concerned with my Twitter feed. My apathy almost became her death sentence when she suffered from a mini-stroke, having taken 40mg of diuretics in two days.
Don’t wait for a lethal ending.
Illustration by Ashlie Juarbe