Princeton is a campus where all hedges are manicured, all the details are tended to with care. Leave for a summer and come back to find it just as pristine, with perhaps a new structure looming over a familiar walkway. As students, we sometimes learn to tend to the exterior, to focus on presentation, to put on our best selves at all times. Once in a while, we are granted access to what lies beneath the surfaces we confront every day: sometimes it’s late at night, on a dorm room floor; sometimes it’s on a labored, rainy walk back from the Street; sometimes it’s during a quick coffee with a friend that unexpectedly expands to fill a few hours. These moments are as precious as they are few and far between.
Zach Feig ’18 is organizing a staged reading of monologues, submitted anonymously by students at Princeton, about their struggles with eating, eating disorders, nutrition, weight loss, weight gain, and dieting. The project’s goal is to generate conversation and community around maintaining a healthy relationship with food. The Nassau Weekly has worked with Zach to showcase a small collection of these monologues, printed here, with a similar aspiration. Some of the monologues collected here touch on similar themes, report parallel struggles, converse with each other in a way that this printed medium allows them to. With Zach, we hope to bring to light issues that are widespread but remain hidden beneath the fold, to make available across as many platforms as possible an insight into a corner of Princeton that too often gets shut away, to amplify the voices of those trained to keep quiet.
These are some of their stories.
I wish I could say that I fully recovered that summer. But coping with an eating disorder is a long, gradual process. It takes an average of seven years to recover from an eating disorder. Research now suggests that eating disorders have neurological underpinnings, causing a faulty chemical reward system that can influence a person’s thoughts and make full recovery harder to achieve. There is no “finish line” that clearly marks full recovery.
In my case, the rapid weight gain presented a new challenge to my fragile body image. Because a malnourished body greedily accumulates fat to protect vital organs, my weight gain was distributed unevenly on my body. My face and stomach bulged like grapes while my arms and legs stuck out like twigs.
Throughout high school, I continued to struggle with eating and maintaining my weight. In the cafeteria line, I froze, staring at the infinite entree options. My anxiety surged as I contemplated the “perfect” meal or a new food. I still compared myself with others, a sign that I needed to improve my self-esteem. I was trying hard to recover. But rather than genuinely caring about maintaining weight, I still felt like I was doing this for my parents and not for myself.
Progress came slowly. I joined the track and cross-country teams to make friends and ended up becoming a top runner. At times, running created issues with weight-maintenance and over-exercise. But it gave me self-confidence and made me more in tune with my body’s needs. Being a part of a team also helped me develop a healthier attitude about exercise.
The biggest change occurred when I left home for college. No longer dependent on my parents for support, I woke up to the reality that I had to learn to be responsible for my own health: to portion my meals myself, to balance my activities and find time to eat, to juggle sports and dance groups without overburning myself, and to get a reasonable amount of sleep instead of studying. I was surrounded by mature and intellectual peers who challenged my conventional thoughts. College forced me to think about who I am and who I want to be.
Through conversations with my advisers, my new therapist, and myself, I realized what I needed most was trust. As I finally told my mother the insecurities I still felt, her soft voice comforted me. “I’m not mad, Lillian.” After sharing with a close friend, I almost cried when she looked me dead in the eye and said, “I will do whatever it takes to help you fight this.” When my therapist told me, “This is not your fault,” I felt free.
Eventually, I began to trust that my friends, family, and support team (dietician, therapist, and doctor) were there to help me and not judge me. I trusted that it was perfectly fine to not know how many calories I consumed. I trusted that there was a reason for my mistakes. As easy as it sounds, admitting to others and myself that I really did have psychological issues was probably the hardest yet liberating decision I’ve ever made. It allowed me to take a step back and ask myself what was preventing me from living to my fullest potential. It allowed me to put health as my first priority.
Have you ever looked at a slice of pizza? I mean, that’s kind of a dumb question because you probably see one almost every day. If it isn’t from late meal, it’s from a dining hall or one of the hundreds of study breaks that always seem to think they’re being original by providing pizza. Pizza truly is synonymous with college. However, with all of these opportunities to consume pizza, have you ever truly looked at it? I mean really looked at it. Looked at it to the point that you see the grease glistening on the surface of the cheese. How the cheese slowly slides off as you pick it up for a bite. How thick and doughy the crust is. How good the cheese, bread, and tomato sauce taste in your mouth. How you are consuming over 300 calories with every slice. How you are using up 12% of your daily carbohydrates and 26% of your daily sodium with every slice. How every slice you eat adds another hour to your gym time to make up for the indulgence.
See, I never used to think about all of these things. But now, I can’t get them out of my head. While meal times used to be opportunities to socialize with friends and eat delicious food, they are now full of stress and unhappiness. I can’t go into a dining hall without consciously thinking about how many carbs and calories are on my plate. I eat only plain salad and chicken breast to ensure I am getting my protein without wasting any bad calories. I look away when I see delicious pasta or fresh cooked bread because those are items that will make me fat. If a lunch meeting provides sandwiches, I have to pull them apart and only eat the inside because I can’t eat the 24 grams of carbs, 130 calories, and 2 grams of fat that come from the bread. Or if I do slip up and decide to indulge myself in that one French fry or chocolate chip cookie, or if I’m out to eat with friends and choose something normal to avoid being made fun of because of my meal choices, I’ll regret the decision and dwell upon it for hours afterwards.
I don’t know when this transition happened, but I have reached a point where I can’t go back, or rather, I don’t know how to go back. If I eat something that I know is bad for me, I feel disappointed in my behavior and my lack of self-control. But if I only eat salad and non-carb heavy foods, I’ll constantly be hungry. I’ve looked at online manuals and reached out to peers for advice, but at the end of the day, no one else is in my mind telling me how to think. No one can prevent me from feeling ashamed when I eat a large meal or have a piece of cake. I am stuck inside my own dangerous thoughts with no escape. I tried reaching out to CPS for help, but they provided little advice. Unless I wanted to have a fully diagnosed eating disorder, which we agreed I did not have, their services could not offer much support for me. So what am I supposed to do?
The answer…I continue existing in a weird state of uncertainty, unhealthiness, and unhappiness. As I look around the room right now, I see all of you beautiful people listening to my story. But, when I take the extra half-second to look, I focus in on your skinny waists, your acne free faces, and your size small attire. If only I worked out more and ate less, I too could look like that.
I remember a few weeks ago when I offered my roommates full range of my closet for an event they were going to. We’re all about the same size, so I figured everything should decently fit. However, when I later asked what they decided to wear, they told me they found something in their own closets because all of my clothing was too big on them. Too big? How could it be too big? Everything I own is a size small! Just when I was feeling a little bit better about myself, I fell apart. I started comparing myself to every single person that I saw. “I wish I could be as skinny as she is. Wow, look at her muscles. If only my stomach fat wouldn’t stick out in a dress like that.” I forced myself to be stricter about meal portions and spent hours more at the gym. I needed to be better and be more like these beautiful women.
I wish I could be comfortable in my own skin, but I don’t know how to anymore. I want to wear skinny dresses and two-piece swimsuits, but when I imagine myself in those items, I am afraid. I’d look gross in those. People would stare at my stomach. No one would want to talk to me, not even my boyfriend. And even though he constantly tells me that I’m beautiful, I know deep down I’d be more beautiful if I could be skinnier. Yeah, I’d be a better girlfriend, a better friend, and just a better person overall if I could be smaller. Isn’t there that phrase that good things come in small packages?
I’d love to end this story by saying that I finally received the help I needed, and I’ve developed a healthier mindset about food and weight. But the thing is, I haven’t. It is something I am currently facing and still don’t know how to handle. I share this story with you because I believe I’m not the only student in this situation. Body image issues are prevalent amongst young adults; yet, they are one of the few things we don’t spend a lot of time discussing. I speak today so that I can confront this issue and try to stop letting it control my life. I hope that my story can do the same for you.
During the week of Valentine’s Day, I walked into the Stephens Fitness Center and noticed that Campus Rec had introduced a new challenge. In October, there was a pretzel counting competition. Every once in a while, there’s a trivia question. The 1,000-point challenge is always popular, although the other competitions — like benching your bodyweight or “scaling the Washington monument” — don’t tend to attract as many contestants.
For Valentine’s Day, the task was simple. All you had to do was take a look at a sample Valentine’s Day dinner menu and guess the total number of calories in a three-course meal. As a foodie, I recall voraciously reading the elaborate starter, the main, and lingering on dessert— always my favorite part of a meal. According to Campus Rec, the participant with the closest guess would win a gift certificate from Olives to spend as they pleased.
A free meal? For something so simple?
I was tempted.
After all, I thought I could do it— and do it pretty well. I’ve gone entire weeks plugging my consumption meticulously into MyFitnessPal, weighing my proteins, carbs, and fats in my head and approximating their caloric content. Obsessively and compulsively visualizing food has become a mind-tic of sorts: whenever I’m stressed or bored, my brain instinctively turns towards creating a visual diary of what I’ve eaten today, or even yesterday, and along with it an emotional analysis of whether or not it was unhealthy or too much— never too healthy or too little. (You can never have ‘too much’ of a good thing, however twisted the definition of ‘good’ can be, and I’ve struggled with my own definition for a while.)
Every time it happens I berate myself for being so petty, but I can’t help it. When everything else feels so scattered in a typically busy college day, food is one thing I can control. I hate it, but also love it.
I hate how, at the beginning of the year, I would look at the Campus Dining menus online and figure out which foods were the highest in hidden calories. I hate how I sometimes walk away from meals obsessing over how much I ate and thinking of how soon I’d be able to go to the gym. It was hard when the snowstorm hit and the gym was closed, as I’d concluded the preceding evening with the conviction that I’d go to the gym to undo the junk I ate the night before at a study break.
Yet I love the calm of knowing that I’m in control. That I know what is entering my body, for better or for worse, and that I know how I’ll feel afterwards. But I also know that it’s unhealthy to think that my primary way of feeling satisfied is by dictating a physical rhythm that is often hard to predict.
And on and on goes the cycle of self-congratulations, and self-doubt, in my head. Which was why, upon seeing the Campus Rec challenge, I was a little peeved. I knew I could guess how many calories were in that meal, but I chose not to. I wasn’t proud of my ability to do so.
I have had an eating disorder for 8 years. The first time I was hospitalized, I was 14. I spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas of that year in the hospital. I remember my family coming to visit me after their Thanksgiving dinner and the awkward silences, the unspoken knowledge of where we were and what was happening to my family, what I had done to my family. I remember my mom crying and my dad crying – I had never seen either of them cry before. Our family isn’t particularly emotional. I remember my mom begging me to eat something, anything, then yelling at me to just fucking eat something. I remember my sister asking my mom if I was going to die.
That was all 8 years ago. I got better. I went into treatment – missed half of my freshman year of high school because of it. I saw a nutritionist who specialized in eating disorders, a therapist who specialized in eating disorders, and a psychiatrist who – you guessed it – specialized in eating disorders. And slowly, I started to get better, and I generally considered myself “recovered” after a few years.
I’m not sure if I really believe in ever being fully “recovered.” It’s sort of like being an alcoholic – you are always an alcoholic, just a “recovering alcoholic.” You can never go back to how it was before. Except you can’t just avoid food like you can abstain from alcohol, you have to face it every day, multiple times a day, for the rest of your life.
Since my time in the hospital, I’ve had some minor relapses, times when I’d start to restrict again or the occasional purged meal, but never anything serious. But now, 8 years later, I’m in a full-blown relapse. But it’s different this time. There are a lot of things people say eating disorders are “about,” and the issues that influence them: body image, the media, perfectionism, control. It’s not about the food and it’s not about your body.
When I was 14, I cared about being thinner, finally being one of the pretty girls, being thin like all my friends. This time, it was never about my body. I was generally fine with how I looked. This time, it is pure self-destruction, a slow suicide. It is the high that I get from fasting and the intense sense of accomplishment I get from seeing the number on the scale go down. There is no “ultimate goal weight,” no “once I’m X pounds, I’ll be happy.” The thrill is in losing, becoming smaller, shrinking yourself. This time, I don’t want to be thin to be hot. I want to be so thin that people are concerned. I was to be disgustingly thin. I want people to see me and know that *something is wrong.* I want people to see that I need help, that I’m hurting and I need help.
The amount that I have learned in college from various classes taught by Nobel Laureates and other distinguished teachers (dare I say the most distinguished in any university) pales in comparison to my knowledge of everything that might deal with the single word “calorie.” I know how many calories are in a cherry tomato based on the width of it. I know that if I “accidentally” forget something in my room, I can lose an extra 10 calories by going back and getting it. I drink coffee to temporarily speed up my metabolism, not because I am tired. I know that my body takes about 30% of the calories that are in tuna to digest it, which is 20% more than whole grain and 23% more than almonds (plain). All of this knowledge is not only learned but is ingrained in my head like I wish that the formula for GDP was before I take a macro test. But even though I know that I am shoving out knowledge that is actually useful, I thrive on my eating disorder. It tricks me into thinking that I can do anything. If I can do 2 triathlons a week before classes, not enjoying a second of my time on the bike or treadmill, and still be a Princeton student, then who is to say that I can’t do anything? This thought as well dominates my head. I get more pleasure out of seeing the weight drop from 185 to 180 to 178 to…. to 162… to 149 than I get out of enjoying a slice of pizza. I have tricked myself to think that I need to cook my own pasta in another room instead of joining my family for a holiday meal. I sneak off to go to the bathroom and instead do 40 burpees on my back porch. ED is dominating my life. And why? Why before anorexia was I able to win a burger eating contest and get a free t-shirt, but now I can’t eat a burger unless it is not on a bun and I purposely burnt all of the fat off of it myself?
But I have made some progress. I used to have sores in my mouth from chewing so much delicious food and then spitting it out. I had my first Starburst in over a year last week. Most of this is because I told people what I was going through. My friends, although sometimes they accidentally say things like “oh you are filling out. Nice!” are the most helpful support system. My mom makes sure that I try to eat low-fat ranch instead of non-fat. And although I am not able to eat egg yolks yet, I do put peanut butter in my Cheerios sometimes. Little things like that keep me going. I remember how much I like the taste of peanut butter and then my mind ventures to the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe someday I will be able to eat Sour Patch Kids. Maybe someday I will be able to go to the gym because I want to not because I need to. Maybe someday I will be able to eat 4 cherry tomatoes on my salad and not purposely avoid eating the last one. But that day is a long way away. Maybe now I will just focus trying to be happy, not succumbing to the Princeton desire to be perfect. Maybe now I will stop fidgeting on purpose and go to Murray-Dodge and banter with friends. And maybe, just maybe, I will get a cookie.
I’ve told myself many times.
Don’t write about the same demons. Leave
them in London, somewhere between Big Ben
and the seedy Sainsbury’s on Euston Road, the one
that always ran out of spinach but never
biscuits or crisps
or chocolate bars—the chocolate bars I lusted
after pathetically. I ate with the guilt of a virgin
who finally gives in and regrets having
a body. My sin
was a granola bar, or two-hundred forty calories,
which I made last
a week, crumb
after dinner. Sometimes
I even ate the chocolate parts. London
was all sorts of rules, like how I must walk to
and back, to and back, from school, that I must
only get espresso in coffee shops.
I can leave the demons in London but I can’t
unlearn the things they’ve taught:
After eating spaghetti,
because you are out with your friends,
only eat spinach the next day. Run
for an hour the day after Thanksgiving.
After a dinner of tea sandwiches, eaten
open-faced, thick scones studded with sultanas,
it is only right to walk the 2.2 miles
back home. Run if you do not feel sick.
Many lessons later, an ocean, a country
away, I can still taste the clotted cream
in my throat.
Sometimes, I forget that I even went into the servery: it’s like I black out and then there I am, my plate full of food I don’t remember taking and my compulsion to clean my plate ensuring that I eat every last bit.
Since 10th grade, I knew I was getting fat: it was perfectly within my power to stop it (so I thought), and I would just start that diet next week, then the week after, then… I tried everything out there: calorie-counting apps, post-it notes on the food I shouldn’t eat, drinking water constantly to distract myself, fasting, you name it: and still, at 1 am, I would blink and that bag of tortilla strips would be gone. I feel powerless: defeated by inanimate objects, or more likely, my own brain.
I can no longer look in full-length mirrors. The thought just terrifies me: I guess I never grew out of thinking I was supposed to be skinny. I’m 4’11: I am supposed to be dainty, a wisp, a fairy. I’m not supposed to weigh over 130 pounds.
I think I know how to fix it. I think I know how to fix me. But I can’t get myself out of that cycle of binge and self-hatred. Maybe if I’m skinny, I will be happy. It’s probably not true, I know, I’ve read the self-help articles. But wouldn’t it be nice to wear those old pairs of jeans just one more time? The ones that said super skinny like it was a superpower? The ones that stay at the bottom of my shallow drawers as a reminder of my failure, every morning as I dig through those drawers for something that will let me breathe?
You got used to the feeling of crawling in your stomach, when you had matched the number of calories on MyFitnessPal to the number of calories in the blinking red numbers on the elliptical, do you remember this feeling when you tried to fall asleep, but something was sinking inside you? You counted seven grapes and 45 calories and then promised you were full. Your hips started to stretch when you were thirteen, and you could feel the layer of fat over your stomach, you’d fondle it as you fell asleep, look, look how pregnant I can make myself seem, and you laugh because those around you are laughing, and for a moment it makes you feel better.
Your parents try to scare you out of fear, but you don’t realize this yet, so you starve yourself out of spite. You have a party to attend on Saturday. Your friends are all having dinner before; you are exchanging tips about cucumber water triggering a faster metabolism and one girl says celery burns calories but you proudly proclaim that that is only a myth. (Really you just found chewing on the stalks to be a rather unpleasant experience).
You are wearing a tight black strapless dress to the party, and the boy you dream about is going to be there, and you realize you have no choice but to tape the curves of your belly. At this point, you can’t even fathom stepping into a bedroom with a boy, letting him undress you, touch your soft parts, that is unimaginable, so you are only concerned with what will happen if he asks you to dance, and runs his hand along the sides of your waist.
You go to CVS alone, get bandage tape and wrap it around yourself. You go home after the party breathless, unwrap yourself slowly, see the tiny square imprints the tape has left, twisted so tightly around your skin. Your skin is sort of red, blotchy in some parts. You start to cry. You remember what your parents said. Girls who have these disorders, they look at themselves in the mirror and they see something that isn’t there. What magic are they talking about? You look at yourself naked in the mirror, sit down, watch your flesh fold. You walk forward, bend over, look over your shoulder. You see your body changing. You don’t want it to. You prod the parts of your frail figure that hang.
There are many things you do not know yet. You do not know that your best friend will throw up after her first breakup, that the only thing your grandpa will one day find joy in is food, that you’ll call a boy in July and he’ll ask you what vegetables you ate that day and if the ice cream for dessert was yummy. You do not know yet that someone will show you a love that’s kind, that he will stroke you all over and whisper, “you have a beautiful body.” You also don’t know of the day you will itch with guilt, when you realize that you need the reassurance of another to believe in your own form, that you crave compliments from a lover so you can savour sugar on your tongue. You’ll blush and tear up, as your weight keeps waning, wishing you could occupy space with the confidence of knowing your beauty came from you.
Every time I walk into a dining hall, a study break, or even my room, I feel like I am entering a battlefield. Starting the second I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, all I think about is food. First, how to not eat for an entire day: excuses to tell friends, how to avoid study breaks. That thought is soon defeated as I head toward the dining hall for breakfast. Then, it’s how to eat as “healthy” as possible: not the muffin – carbs, not the dried cranberries – sugar, not the omelet – fat… but, if I’m avoiding all these “bad” foods, can I afford to take a handful of Cracklin’ Oats on top of my yogurt? At the cereal station, I am once again defeated. 5 Cracklin’ Oats turns into a little bit of Fruit Loops, then some granola…eventually, my “healthy” yogurt bowl is once again filled with sugar. I am once again defeated. After breakfast, I regret. Why did I eat this? This same pattern of planning starvation, eating excessively, then regretting continues three times a day. I go on an emotional rollercoaster every couple hours: feeling in control of my diet, falling prey to food, and despising the way I look in the mirror.
I used to be anorexic and now, I am bulimic. No one knows this except my mom. Not even my closest friends know that I make my way to the bathroom at least once a day to empty out my stomach and guilt. They don’t know that when I eat an apple, I’m thinking 80 to 120 calories. They don’t know that at night, I snack on sometimes five different things at once. They don’t know that when I grab cherry tomatoes from the salad bar, a calculator goes off in my head– about 30 calories, when I get the grilled chicken: +200, then, the avocado: +150. The list goes on and on.
More than anything else, having an eating disorder is lonely. The entire world becomes just you, food, and your body. This all started when I decided that I wanted to be skinny – to have that slim body that everyone praises and looks good for Instagram. (I know I sound like every other demoralizing story of social media affecting adolescents’ self-image; I didn’t believe it first. But now I do.) I succeeded initially. I lost more than 20 pounds in less than two months by pretty much just eating greens – no dressing, no avocado (I mean that’s fat, right?), no “bad” food. I stepped on the scale every night and depending on the numbers on the scale, I would either cry myself to sleep or feel so elated I could not fall asleep. Slowly, the “oh, did you lose weight?” comments and Instagram likes/comments started trickling in, and I had never felt so accomplished in my life. I confidently strolled into Urban Outfitters, bought all new clothes in size none other than x-small, and of course, took those “insta-worthy” photos. In order to maintain that newly attained figure, I ate half an apple for breakfast and when I would have to eat out with friends, I had to be on the treadmill beforehand to burn off those calories. If I knew I would eat dessert with my friends after dinner, I was on the treadmill for an hour, burning off 600 calories. At the time, I did not know I had an eating disorder. Looking back, I was “sick” and still am.
When I started gaining weight again because I let myself loose for a little bit, I, of course, freaked out. That paranoia soon turned into “I’m going to eat until today, then starve for the next couple days.” Before I knew it, things went out of hands and I was crouching over the toilet seat emptying out everything – then going back to eat more. I cannot explain how it feels when I’m walking to the bathroom, knowing I am soon going to purge, crouching over the seat, watching all I just binged on fall into the murky water and then walking back to wherever food is, only to begin the process once again. Of course, after three months of this, I have gained back all the weight I lost and more.
Wow, after all that, I sound like a depressed, isolated college student sulking in her agony, I promise you that I’m happy and content at Princeton surrounded by great people. But paradoxically, the happiness I feel in other parts of my life makes me feel even worse. It frustrates me that I have no control over my relationship with food and body image even though it is something I could have 100% control over. Just stop eating. I feel powerless and defeated that I am letting food define my identity right now and ruin all the other highlights of my life.
I just want to be skinny. I just want to fit into my size 0 clothes again. I just want to stop eating. I just want to hate food. But I can’t, and gradually, these thoughts have come to dominate my life. Many places on campus are now sources of trauma for me: that bathroom that I threw up in for 30 minutes, that library I binge ate the snacks and that window that always reflects my fat figure. Good news is that I am slowly coming out of this vicious cycle. I have been seeking help and I have been trying. I know that I am strong enough to build myself up again.
I don’t think I will ever have the courage to put my name on this story. But it feels good to share. Now, somehow, I feel indebted to you and your time and feel obligated to triumph over this unexpected mountain in life. Thank you for listening to my story and finally, please walk with others – love them, care for them, and look out for them. You never know their whole story.