defining disordered

the secret life of eating

The Secret Life of Eating At Brown is the title of a play that I’m working on,  but it’s also something that I have been thinking about often as my final semester at this school comes to a close. In all honesty, I’m writing this article mostly because I want people to come see my play, but the part of me not devoted to self-promotion wants to talk about my struggle with an eating disorder because it might make other people on campus feel less alone.

I feel like our generation has gotten past a lot of taboos (Like the sex! Boy, do we love the sex!), but we feel more shame than ever about our bodies and our relationships to eating. At the same time, we know that we are supposed to Love Our Bodies,™ and not be the annoying girl who doesn’t eat anything on a date.

In college, surrounded by sunny depictions of body positivity and radiant California healthiness, I felt like a fuck-up. It seemed like all of my friends could look hot while eating the pizza/cookies that were at every single group meeting I went to, and maybe going to a yoga class on the weekends. Meanwhile, I would eat a meticulously low-calorie diet and obsessively work out, but I still felt fat and miserable. How the hell was that happening? Maybe it had something to do with the compulsive binge eating I was doing every night, or maybe I just had low self-esteem.

Anyway. I had an eating disorder. Or actually maybe I didn’t. I would take quizzes on the NEDA’s website, and the NEDA couldn’t make up its damn mind. Yes, I had often had episodes in which I felt I couldn’t stop eating, but no, I wasn’t very overweight. Yes, I constantly worried about gaining weight and experienced anxiety eating around other people, but no, I hadn’t vomited or abused laxatives. What was I? I was: Please consult a professional.

In high school, things had been clearer. I had been capital-A Anorexic, DSM-certified and psychiatrist diagnosed. I hadn’t really talked about it much, but people could tell because Jesus, I had gotten skinny over summer vacation. But then I started gaining weight again, and nobody cared that I stopped going to therapy. Mission accomplished! Or was it?

I came to Brown. My freshman year, I moved a mile a minute and stayed distracted enough to think I was happy, but by sophomore fall, things started to catch up with me. Confronted with the massive knot I had been tangling up for years, I lost myself in a nervous breakdown unlike anything I had ever experienced.

I felt completely alone at the time, but I think I was missing the signs of other people’s distress; how often did a friend make a nervous joke about how much she had eaten, or how, at 7pm, she had yet to feed herself that day? These little comments were quickly laughed off, or perfunctorily validated, or else just sputtered out into nothingness. They were not “unpacked.” We talked seriously about school and art and boys and God, but not how we felt about eating.

I understand now that there are many people on campus who feel constantly stressed out or ashamed about food, and a lot of them don’t fit into a psychologist’s definition of “eating disordered.” I think there is a heavy stigma surrounding women’s appetites, and our silence greatly contributes to the problem. We need a specific, sophisticated, and nuanced vocabulary to talk about these issues, because everybody knows somebody who is suffering.

A few weeks ago, I sent out an anonymous survey to the Brown community asking for people’s thoughts on the subjects of food and eating, and I was blown away by the responses. So many people had gone through experiences similar to mine—or different, but symptomatic of the same societal confusion surrounding food. Men, too, were suffering, although the disease manifested somewhat differently, and was cloaked in even more shame.

I took the survey responses and edited them into a short play, which I titled The Secret Life of Eating At Brown. If you or any of your friends happen to survive by ingesting food, you should come see it. I think a lot of people will find their personal experiences validated, and if not, gain clearer insight into an issue that is portrayed in the media with too much sensationalism and not enough first-person testimony. The myth goes something like this: A crazy fringe of our society is anorexic or bulimic, and everybody else is either normal, fat, or male. I think the reality is a lot more complicated, and that people would be shocked to see the level of dysfunction that often passes for okay. When Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues premiered in 1996, people in the audience fainted during the scene about female orgasms. We live in a different world now, but when I watch Lena Dunham binge eating in front of her refrigerator, I still think, I can’t believe she’s doing that on tv.

I want to tell any reader who might be struggling with an eating disorder not to give up hope. I think that very soon, we’re all going to have more tools for supporting you. Remember that you are not defective, but the product of a society panicking about what to do with bodies. Recovery is possible, and you deserve it.

The Secret Life of Eating At Brown will be performed in the Faunce Underground on Saturday, April 5th, at 6:30pm, and Sunday, April 6th, at 2:30, 4:30, and 6:30.