Show compassion to those struggling with eating disorders

Melina Khan, News Editor

Illustration by Sarah Hardiman

A year ago, a Quinnipiac University student interviewed me for a story recognizing National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. It was my first year of college. Going public about my experience made me feel overwhelmingly afraid of what others would think, how it would make me look and who might read it.

But I did it anyway because I knew how important the topic was.

“There is a toxic environment in college around food and diet culture and all of that kind of stuff … I am strong enough to handle it, but it doesn’t make it less hard,” I said at the time.

I’m strong enough to handle it. I think about that phrase a lot.

What does it mean to “handle” something? Does that mean you have it under control? Because there are days — so many since I said those words — where I feel like I can barely handle the disorder that has followed me like the dark cloud of an impending downpour since I was 14 years old.

Until I was 18, living in eating disorder recovery was manageable, thanks to the support system I have at home. My family, friends and therapist understand what I’ve gone through because they’ve experienced it with me. They understand my triggers, what kind of topics are sensitive for me and what isn’t okay to talk about around me.

When I came to college, I never anticipated how difficult it would be. I always considered myself strong enough to not waver in my recovery. I was wrong.

In so many aspects of college life, there exists environments around diet culture, weight loss and physical fitness that can be incredibly toxic for those who have experienced disordered eating.

Being in college means going to social functions like parties or clubs where there are expectations around how to look or dress as a female. Encountering these instances is bound to make anyone compare themselves to others, but as someone with a preexisting negative relationship with their body, it can be overwhelming. Trying to pick out an outfit to go out with friends is made more anxiety-inducing by body dysmorphia, which creates a greater divide between me and feeling comfortable in my own skin.

This is something that I’ve had to consistently grapple with, and has created new obstacles in recovery.

When I moved away to college, living away from home and my support system for the first time was hard. Being in charge of your own meals, including when and what to eat, can feel incredibly daunting and remains my biggest vulnerability to relapse.

Some days are easier to handle than others. I’ve learned how important it is to talk about my experiences because, unfortunately, they are common in college.

According to a 2005 study by Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer who specializes in adolescent nutrition, over half of teenage girls and nearly a third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors. This means that there are probably people you encounter on campus every day that are struggling but don’t show it. That’s why it’s so important to show compassion to everyone, or as the National Eating Disorders Association is promoting this year: “See the change, be the change.”

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is recognized during the week of Feb. 21. It’s a week to raise awareness of the deadly effects of eating disorders. It’s also an opportunity to have compassion for those who need it.

Throughout my recovery, I have realized how important it is for those around me to be understanding and supportive. For me, being held accountable is difficult but necessary. While it is important to recognize that everyone’s experience with eating disorders is unique, coming to understand what kind of support those in your life who may be struggling need is a small way you can make a difference.

Moreover, in keeping with this year’s NEDA week theme, if you see something, consider what you can do. While addressing the person directly may not be effective in all situations, there are still options. Offering to get food with or for them, being with them during meals or simply asking them how they are doing are small gestures that go a long way.

It’s important to remember that you ultimately know and love this person, which is already enough to take the first step toward supporting them.