The impossible perception of perfect: Students recount experiences with eating disorders

Jessica Sehgal, Assistant In-Depth Editor

Trigger Warning: The following story contains information regarding eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia that may trigger some readers.

Disclaimer: In this article, we write about the experiences of certain students who have dealt with eating disorders. We recognize that we do not cover the range of all eating disorders, nor do we cover the variety of perspectives and experiences of victims. We have changed the *names of certain students and identifiable details in order to protect their privacy. More information on eating disorders can be found via the National Eating Disorder Association or the National Institute of Mental Health.

We live in a world of social media, where likes translate to value and friends are gained through followers, a world in which adolescent girls stain their pillowcases with tears, as they scroll endlessly through Instagram models setting an untouchable standard of beauty. Videos titled “What I Eat In a Day” consume the feeds of impressionable teenagers and glamorize insufficient dietary habits. In reality, such eating habits are far from glamorous.

Jane Davis* begins each day by getting out of bed and standing in front of her mirror.

“If I’m skinny enough, that means I’ve earned my one meal for the day,” Davis explains. “If I’m not, then I just sit back in bed and stay there for most of the day.”

Davis has been diagnosed with anorexia: an eating disorder that causes one to starve themselves into losing weight.

Davis spoke slowly when I talked to her. She was patient with me through our entire discussion as she vividly recalled her experiences, but I couldn’t help but observe the subtle exhaustion behind her voice. She was undoubtedly charming as we spoke on the phone, but the way in which her words strung together, with microscopic sighs holding sentences together like glue, it was apparent that Davis was tired.

At merely 16, she spoke of being too fragile to stand up at times, so much so that her legs would fall beneath her, and she would collapse trying to get out of bed. At night, she takes her mirrors off of her grey bedroom walls and flips them around, so that she’s not tempted to look at and criticize her reflection.

Every day, Davis notices new wads of her thinning hair easily fall from her scalp, as she hears remarks such as, “I don’t need to eat breakfast,” from her peers: a phrase with innocent intentions but detrimental impacts. As human beings, gifted with the ability of speech, our words have a greater influence than we often realize.

Davis first started noticing signs of anorexia as Governor Pritzker’s stay-at-home order set in, and remaining in bed all day became habitual for Davis.

“Since I was home alone and couldn’t go anywhere, I would just stay in my room and wouldn’t even go downstairs to eat; that just became a habit.”

Even as the months passed, Davis still lingered in her bed for the majority of days. A sufficient amount of food is essential for one’s energy, and Davis notes an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion that comes with starvation.

“I sleep all the time, and when I’m not [sleeping], I’m either in my bed or I’m driving. I try not to exert myself at all, and if I do, then I’m exhausted for the rest of the day.”

E-learning has brought a multitude of challenges along with it, but for Davis, the lack of structure has perpetuated her dangerous eating habits. On weekdays, she lies in bed for up to nearly seven hours attending classes or completing school work. The harsh blue light reflecting off her glassy, green eyes, mascara caked under her lower eyelashes from endless tears and cries to deem herself good enough. Her fragile bones lay still as she drifts off, listening to her lecturing teachers who will never fully understand what she’s going through each day as she shows up to class.

“[E-learning] makes [my eating disorder] a lot worse, because, at school, we would have set times where we would go eat. At lunch, everyone else was eating in the lunchroom, and you needed food to focus in class,” Davis notes. “It was a lot easier to justify eating at school, but, at home, when I’m not doing anything, it’s like I’m not ‘earning’ it.”

Not only does e-learning impact her eating habits, but her eating habits also impact her learning. She sits through class after class, expected to show up with full focus, but her mind is elsewhere.

“It definitely affects my ability to learn. My mind isn’t at its peak, and, to be totally honest with you, I’m really hungry, and I’m really tired. It’s pretty hard to focus on graphing piecewise functions or the pH of ammonia when I’m really hungry and tired.”

Outside of school, Davis’ friendships have been impacted as a result of her anorexia as well. When going out to eat, Davis will be the only one not to order, and her friends have noticed this.

“We’ll be ordering food, and she’ll say something like, ‘Oh, I’m not hungry,’” Davis’ close friend recalls. “We’ll order her something anyway because we want her to build this healthy relationship with food again… It’s just sad to see someone you love go through something like this. I want to help in every way I can, but, sometimes, I don’t know how.”

Davis appreciates the support she receives from her friends, but she has noticed some awkward tension around the subject of food with them.

“My friends have definitely been supportive, but, sometimes, I think it gets a little weird between us,” she describes. “I think they get frustrated with me when I won’t eat, and I know that I should eat but it’s not that simple. It can be really scary, and the feeling of guilt after I eat has gotten worse; it feels like I lose control.”

Davis highlights a key idea that is often excluded from conversations regarding eating disorders: control. Lily Moore* explains how through her experience living with an eating disorder, she wasn’t always triggered by insecurities but more when she felt at a loss of discipline.

“I would be over the toilet every night, whether I was stressed about school or activities or if I felt out of control, I would make myself throw up. It was something that I could control,” Moore recounts.

Moore was diagnosed with bulimia: an eating disorder that causes one to make themselves throw up their food. She would spend summer days in a small office, side-by-side with her parents, consulting with a doctor about meal plans. She’d have long discussions at night with her loved ones, and she believes that her relationship with family members, in general, has suffered as a result.

“My sibling freaked out on me when they noticed [I had bulimia]. I would always avoid them because they either seemed disappointed or frustrated with me,” Moore explains, “Before, we were really close, but then I slipped into this habit of avoiding them, and our relationship definitely took a hit because of that.”

Another family member told Moore, “I wouldn’t expect a girl like you to be insecure,” a response that was particularly harmful to Moore’s wellbeing.

Moore reflects, “It felt like they were blaming me for being insecure, which didn’t always really seem fair.”

Strands of Moore’s fiery, auburn hair would occasionally dip into the toilet as she attempted to hold them back. Night after night, spilling her dinner into the basement toilet bowl, as she worried over her math test she didn’t feel prepared for and the friend who was mad at her that day. She was told it was her fault she threw up her food and couldn’t keep a meal down.

“There’s a lot of blame placed on the person who has an eating disorder, but it’s [a result of] society,” Moore expresses. “You’re told from a young age you’re supposed to be skinny, and you’re supposed to fit all of these boxes; everything has been shoved down your throat since you were like eight-years-old. A ton of blame goes onto those who have eating disorders instead of trying to fix the way we treat our young.”

Moore’s bulimia has infiltrated every aspect of her life. She criticizes the way society has forced pressures on young girls that lead to body image issues and insecurities.

“Having bulimia, it wrecks so much. I feel myself starting to get better, but I still have days where I have to make myself throw up because I feel helpless. It gets exhausting because I feel like I’m never going to be fully myself again,” Moore describes. “Girls are told we have to do what it takes to be perfect, but we need to start telling girls that our wellbeing is more important than perfection.”

The key notion of body confidence education begins in the classroom. According to Moore, she found one element of her classroom education particularly harmful: the sophomore Wellness nutrition unit.

“My Wellness class was pretty triggering to me because they talked a lot about calories and micromanaging what to put in your body.”

Sophomore Gillian Aaronson also found this unit detrimental to the self-esteem of students. Certain Wellness teachers implemented games revolving around calorie counting: a practice that can lead to obsessing over the calories in food. Such habits can trigger individuals who struggle to have a healthy relationship with eating.

“The calorie counting games and teachers telling you how much you should and shouldn’t eat is really harmful,” Aaronson explained. “Especially because eating disorders are really competitive between people, and that just makes it a lot worse because you’re comparing your answers with other people’s.”

In late September of 2020, Aaronson brought this to the attention of the Wellness Department, resulting in a Zoom meeting between P.E. and Wellness Department Chair Marie Livatino and other sophomore girls to discuss the complications of the wellness curriculum.

Aaronson shared that, during the Zoom, she noticed a disconnect between Livatino and the concerns that Aaronson attempted to address. However, Aaronson does not blame Livatino, and, instead, concludes that it stems from a generational difference.

“At first, [my peers and I] all felt like she didn’t understand where we were coming from. I feel like that’s a difference between generations, growing up on social media is just so different.”

Aaronson emphasizes the unique way in which Generation Z has had to navigate life: an era of social media.

“We already see so much of what we should and shouldn’t eat, and what we should and shouldn’t look like on social media and online; schools shouldn’t add to that stress.”

However, despite the age difference, Livatino has made efforts to adapt the nutrition unit to be more sensitive towards students.

“After meeting with students, [Livatino] brought student feedback to the entire Wellness team. They discussed strategies for improving the calorie lesson within the nutrition unit. Wellness teachers will be implementing these strategies for future lessons,” reads a statement from the Wellness team.

While the work to remodel traditionally insensitive curriculums is essential, lessons of positive self-esteem and self-care must expand beyond the classroom in order to achieve true progress towards a more accepting society; a society where girls aren’t raised to adhere to the impossible perception of “perfect.”

Davis’ and Moore’s stories provide insight into the high school girls who look in the mirror each day and believe they must go to all efforts to change themselves. Those whose social media streams flood with thin waists and thigh gaps and believe they have to accomplish those standards to be considered beautiful.

“Whether you’re anorexic or bulimic or have a binge eating disorder or feel like you need to change your body in any way, my heart goes out to you,” Davis discloses. “I know, from personal experience, that it feels impossible to be good enough, but you are.

“Every woman, no matter their shape or size, is good enough, and we need to start teaching everyone that.”