Ragstock dressing room
Madison Grosvenor/Daily

Content warning: Mentions of disordered eating

A week before my first class at the University of Michigan, I wandered around Ann Arbor as a college student for the very first time. With friends who were already familiar with the city, I was given a grand tour of which buildings I’d enjoy, which are widely beloved and which to avoid altogether. We all swooned for the smells of Frita Batidos, awed at the beauty of the Michigan Theater and listened to the ringing of Burton Memorial Tower. However, it was Ragstock that caused the most shrills of excitement amongst our little crowd. The beloved clothing chain fit our personal styles and wallets, so we promptly spent the next half hour in a perpetual browse chorused by “oohs” and “ahhs.” Eventually, the time for try-ons came and we beelined for the changing rooms. 

COVID-19, naturally, had halted my in-store purchases for nearly two years. Even then I tend to only thrift, so it may have been even longer since I’ve found myself in the artificial blinding lights of a dressing room. For a variety of reasons, I tend to avoid mirrors, cameras and changing rooms — The biggest being the quickness and sharpness of my own self-criticisms, and how easily these fester into starvation-based punishments. In this Ragstock changing room, the pattern easily picked up where it left off years prior. In this Ragstock dressing room, I feel guilty and ashamed for the body I reside within. 

I hope this is a blip, a hiccup in my progress. It’s humiliating to think one poorly-lit view of myself could undo a year’s worth of work and progress and lovely weight gain. But it is not a blip, and I spent my fall semester with the smell of rotten food and lemon green tea. Four times a week I sleepwalked from State Street to my bus stop, still in a dizzy sway. I could sit on the curb and wait, maybe embarrassingly, but this is an admission of defeat: my broken body has not won yet, and I will continue to push and punish until it does. In my sways and starved delirium I’m thinking of the bare minimum amount of meals I’ll need in order to stay afloat this week, and how many iron supplements I’ll need to take to keep my hair from falling out in clumps. 

Often, an eating disorder is a learned behavior, not a natural inclination for harm and discipline. They are often gifted from mother to daughter, from media to viewer, friend to friend. This is what makes the epidemiology of eating disorders so mystifyingly unique: they are mental illnesses that act as social diseases, so they spread like fatphobic colds and flus. I can’t pinpoint where I learned mine, but I can imagine I was taught it from multiple sources in quick, successive repetition. Additionally, there are risk factors for those who are extra susceptible to these destructive teachings, like poor psychological health and trauma, family history, life changes and even participation in extracurricular activities. By common definition, eating disorders are “patterns of restriction and/or binging, intense fear of weight gain, distorted body image, and self-esteem that is reliant on how the body is perceived.” Within the ebb and flow of my disordered eating, I’ve consistently held all of the above. 

I am a public health student, and this irony doesn’t escape me. I’ll spend the next two years learning the science of disease and medicine, and then I’ll spend 40 hours a week for the rest of my professional life touting the social determinants of health and other systemic failures of the American healthcare system, all while I am flailing inside one of the most prevalent public and mental health crises. This is especially true of college campuses, where upwards of 32.6% of women and 25% of men qualify as having disordered eating habits, and even more have them but are undetected. This is to say that I must have a multitude of classmates also living with this ironic contradiction. 

College campuses breed eating disorders with unparalleled spread and success rates for a variety of reasons. Whispers and warnings of the “Freshman 15” begin months, maybe years, before the first day of classes. From the get-go, students are shamed and frightened into the self-surveillance of nutrients and dieting. In many cases, these attempts at harmless diets quickly spiral into disordered eating. Dieting, especially amongst college students, is so normalized that the dangers often do not register to most people. SoulCycle, for instance, displays daily words of fat-burning inspiration for anyone walking down South University Avenue, and even while scrolling through The Michigan Daily’s website weight-loss advertisements featuring caricatures of hourglass-shaped women often fill the ad space. Additionally, the actual transition to college fits multiple eating disorder risk factors: major life change, extracurricular activities and an uptick in poor psychological health. At the University in particular, the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is notorious for being too busy and incredibly unhelpful. The social pressures of college impact a person’s exposure to disordered eating habits as well, and offer more colloquial ways of picking up disordered eating habits from friends and peers. 

Through research and studies, the University has repeatedly confirmed that our student body suffers from the same shame, control and punishment that creates eating disorders amongst young people. In a recent study, Michigan Medicine found that 27.8% of female undergraduates and 11.8% of male undergraduates screen positive for an eating disorder. Furthermore, almost all (82% of women and 96% of men) of the positively screened students are not receiving treatment for their disorders in the past year. These startlingly-high numbers of untreated students can be accounted for by the normalization of disordered eating on college campuses, especially one with high-stakes stress and a competitive culture like the University’s. It’s common to hear of peers not eating or sleeping during exam seasons, often wearing it as a perverse badge of pride to show just how dedicated they are to their work. Additionally, the pressure to party and appeal to male-dominated hookup culture while still maintaining thinness leads to the commonplace habit of skipping meals on the day of parties, dubbed “drunkorexia.” These are habits that I’ve known myself and my other partially-recovered friends to partake in, even when the dangers of dabbling in starvation are devastatingly clear. 

Eating disorders are, by the majority of therapists and other professionals, treated in a similar way to addiction. This is what they are — an addiction to discipline, to punishment, to beauty standards, to control. With other addictions, the trigger can be avoided as best as possible and environments can be changed. With an eating disorder, your very existence relies upon interacting with your trigger. It seems impossible to imagine troubled relations with air or water, but this is akin to being troubled with food. A basic necessity of life is near impossible to grapple with, and is always on a slippery slope of potentially re-destroying your life. A minimum of three meals a day is at least 21 chances per week, minimum, to relapse. Like an addict to anything else, you are never recovered — just in recovery.

Standing on North University Avenue in the bitter December cold, I experience a dizzy spell that nearly knocks me to the ground. Under my wobbling legs, small bits of grass and weeds grow between cement cracks. Diagonal to the busy street, a convenience store called “Stairway to Heaven” glares at me. I think this is ironic — Ann Arbor, in its own cracking beauty, held nothing short of a mental hell for me at the time. I do often wonder if this would have killed me, or if it still will. It is by no means difficult to create mental movies of my emaciated body crashing onto the cement, snapping what is left of my bone density. I have fainted a multitude of times in my life — some public, some private — from a lack of nutrients, and any of these times could have been my body’s final snap. Human bodies are already incredibly fragile, with a million different mechanisms and a million different deadly outcomes, and I have spent the entirety of my life only adding on more caution tape.

Statement Columnist Ava Burzycki can be reached at burzycki@umich.edu.