Body Beautiful Week: A Personal Story

By: 
Madeline Wetterhahn
Class of: 
2015

“Body Beautiful Week: Love Your Body!”—which corresponds to National Eating Disorder Awareness Week—encourages a dialogue on campus about body image, healthy eating and eating disorders.  I believe wholeheartedly in starting these conversations, which is why I’ve spearheaded the week and its events. St. Lawrence is ready for a discussion about eating disorders—not the kind in magazines or on reality TV shows, but the real-life kind that changes the lives of students on campus. Students like me.

The summer before arriving at SLU for my freshman year, my parents divorced. I got into my dream school but couldn’t afford to go. That September, my father married his coworker. Over the next six months, both of my paternal grandparents died. Other things I don’t often talk about started bothering me more than usual. To avoid working through all of these things, I lost myself in my work. By sophomore year, I was class president, an athlete, a Community Assistant, taking some of the toughest science classes on campus, developing a pretty powerful eating disorder and doing research. Yes, the eating disorder really did slip into my life that subtly.

At the time, I ignored signs that my body was malfunctioning—my organs failing, in fact. I knew something was wrong—a lot of people did, including my doctor—but they didn’t know what it was. During that time my coach told me that “I just wasn’t the kind of girl” to get an eating disorder (which I agreed with) and that I had never been afraid to be a “big--I mean, tall--girl” (wrong, although how was my coach supposed to know that if even my doctors didn’t?). 

Late in the game, a tip to the Health Center prompted a counselor to broach the subject with me. Although I initially rejected the very idea, I eventually recognized that I fit the clinical criteria for anorexia nervosa. I decided to get checked out, just in case. At my first appointment, I was not reassured. Rather, I was given priority status on the waiting list for partial hospitalization. If recognizing that I had let my perfectionism spiral out of control was difficult for me, accepting that I could not "control" my recovery on my own was even harder. I’m still working on that.           

It’s curious how anorexia is so often equated with “exceptional self-control” in the public psyche.  The diagnosis, “Anorexia Nervosa: binge purge type,” somehow caries more cultural cache than “Social Anxiety Disorder.” The eating disorder narrative is so often reduced to something dramatic, tragic in the media; a woman so determined to be thin that she defied nature and denied herself food--even to the point of death! While eating disorders are tragic, there is really nothing dramatic or glamorous about them. The fact that anorectics calculate the calories in endless servings of iceberg lettuce, or even try to find out if toothpaste has calories, is a testament to the power of the disease to make life mind-numbingly boring rather than the power of the individual to conquer human need.

Eating disorders have also often been compared to addictions, a comparison I find more accurate. Just like other addicts, people with eating disorders will do desperate things to satisfy their addiction. Having “restricted” and “binge-purged” myself, I can still remember the heart-stuttering, almost paralyzing panic I felt when asked to eat a slice of banana bread in rehab. Did the nutritionist have any idea how many grams of fat and carbohydrates were in that? His back turned, I funneled chunks of the bread down my sleeve and rolled the cuff over, fully aware that I would have to conceal the sticky contraband there for the next two hours until I had bathroom privileges and could flush it away.

When out to the movies with friends, I would excuse myself so I could do wall-sits in the bathroom stall to make up for the 90 minutes I would spend inactive in the theater seat. Like many anorexics, I began to hoard a strange assortment of food: an eighth of a Luna bar, a fat-free cream cheese mini-tub from the Pub, a strawberry from an awards ceremony in Sykes Formal, and half a saltine cracker. Soon I had a regular cornucopia of out-of-date, nutritionally void food—wholly disgusting and entirely inedible. And that’s just what I’m not too embarrassed to mention on a blog.

But even more bizarre and revolting than my eating disorder behaviors was the rapid degeneration of my body. My hair fell out in clumps in the shower, on my brush, wrapped around my elastics like some sort of artificial extension. My skin first took on a dull, yellowish hue and then covered itself in a layer of fine, downy hair. This lanugo, which was especially prominent on the sides of my face and my back, was supposedly my body’s way of insulating itself once it had lost almost all of its fat. I don’t remember it working too well - I was constantly and absurdly cold. Wearing fleece pants and a parka, I would curl up in my car, crank the heat and wait for the warmth to seep into my body. I couldn’t walk up the two flights of stairs to my dorm without pausing or feeling a fluttering, stammering, sensation in my chest and a wave of dizziness that I only later realized was my heart beginning to beat arrhythmically.

As glamorous and independent as growing your own fur coat and being unable to perform moderate exertion might seem, the atrophy of my muscles was accompanied by a cache of even more desirable advances. I would wake to my leg muscles twitching at night—essentially my body consuming its less necessary tissues (like those used for walking) to support more important functions (like, say, breathing). I’d walk on the side of my feet whenever possible, because putting pressure on the bony heel and ball was increasingly painful, Soon, I was having problems with incontinence—yes, that kind of incontinence. Months of the glamorous discipline of anorexia had eaten away at my pelvic muscles and urethral sphincters. So much for elegance and control.

So if we can’t have elegance and control, what can we have? This is a question that I hope “Body Beautiful Week” poses. What about honesty? Vulnerability? Both seem like a good place to start to me. A little awareness wouldn’t hurt, either. Girls and women ages 15-24 are 12 times more likely to die from anorexia than anything else, but anorexia isn’t the only eating disorder. Bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder are more common and can be just as devastating. Men can—and do—have eating disorders, too.

Body Beautiful Week is intended to start a discussion on how you can actively change the way you inhabit your body. It’s important to know that an eating disorder is not a lifestyle choice or “just a phase.” As a community, we need to recognize that eating disorders are illnesses, they are on campus and that we need to talk about them. But we also need to take the time to celebrate what our bodies do for us. Attending a lecture, covering a mirror and journaling and cooking at a workshop are all just ways to get started. It is my partners’ and my hope that taking part in Body Beautiful Week will be a first step for many, as we all learn to embrace our own bodies.

Don’t wait to get help for yourself, a friend or a loved one. Call the Counseling Center at (315) 229-5392 to set up an appointment, or call 229-5555 and ask for the Counselor on Call for 24-hour confidential care. For the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline, they are available Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at (800) 931-2237.