Content warning: this article includes a discussion of eating disorders
“This is the first meal I’ve had all day!” I overhear someone exclaim in the dining hall. It's 6 pm, and my dinner starts to taste like guilt.
The response is laughter and echoes of “same.” It's not uncommon to hear talk like that in NU’s dining halls: people complaining that they always sleep through breakfast, or that they just don’t have time to consume anything other than coffee or Redbull. Sometimes you catch notes of pride in their voices. Who’s eaten the least today? Who’s been the busiest? Who’s been working the hardest?
Sometimes it’s just a joke. “Haha, I haven't eaten since yesterday,” they declare with a grin. I don't understand what’s so funny.
Maybe I'm too sensitive; but I have reason to be. I’m in recovery from an eating disorder. Last year, I had to take a two-quarter medical leave of absence to focus on rebuilding my mental and physical health. Today, while I'm doing much better, it’s still hard to eat the amount that I know I need to stay well. It's even harder to have a healthy relationship with food and my body when it feels like disordered eating is the norm on campus.
The normalization of skipping meals or eating inadequately seems to reflect the overall culture of valuing productivity over self-care that dominates Northwestern, other elite colleges and our society at large. It's typical to pull all-nighters to catch up on homework, and no one bats an eye when you isolate yourself, overextend yourself and work until burnout hits so hard that you literally cannot get out of bed. I mean, “AND is in our DNA,” right?
The way we converse about our mental strain just contributes to the problem further. In a society that equates an uncontested commitment to productivity with worth, saying that you stayed up all night studying and didn’t eat anything becomes a way to prove your value. It can even become competitive; I can’t tell you how many times I've heard people complain that they only got five hours of sleep, only to have their friends retort, “You’re lucky – I only got two.” It becomes a battle of who’s neglecting their needs more intensely, with the grand prize of recognition and validation. It’s a way of proving you belong.
When we aren’t bragging about our lack of self-care, we’re joking about it. Students talk lightheartedly about being malnourished and sleep-deprived, and the people around them just laugh and agree. It’s the subject of countless online memes and casual conversations. No one seems especially concerned when their friends mention alarmingly unhealthy habits.
An unfortunate consequence of the normalization of disordered eating is the shame that can come from deviating from these norms. I feel embarrassed to admit that I eat three balanced meals a day, and sometimes snacks. I feel like I'm morally inferior for taking care of my body. What does it say about me that I tear myself away from my studies in order to grab lunch? Am I weak, lazy, or uncommitted? When you struggle with an eating disorder, food takes on a symbolic kind of value. As a result, comparing my eating habits to those of my friends can make me feel like a lesser person. I often feel isolated, unaccomplished, and unworthy as a result of the culture here.
It's also important to consider that NU’s productivity culture could be obscuring symptoms of clinical eating disorders. When I was struggling so intensely last year, I regularly skipped meals, obsessively counted calories and felt immense guilt anytime I ate something deemed bad or unhealthy. Looking around campus today, I see so many people engaging in the exact same behaviors I used to deal with. It's no wonder it took so long for me or anyone else to realize I had a problem – at first glance, nothing I did was all that out of the ordinary.
Of course, there’s a difference between some disordered patterns and a diagnosable mental illness. However, disordered eating is seriously unhealthy on its own, and it can quickly evolve into a full-blown eating disorder – an evolution that is obscured by norms that enable and even encourage self-destructive habits. A college campus like Northwestern's is the perfect breeding ground for eating disorders because red flags generally go unnoticed.
As a school, we have to do better. We have to look out for each other’s wellbeing. It isn't okay that so many of us are neglecting ourselves. Productivity is never worth sacrificing your health. Failing to nourish your body isn’t something to feel proud of.
It isn’t funny to go hungry. It’s time we stopped laughing.