I Was Once a 90-Pound College Student, Too

I Was Once a 90-Pound College Student, Too

Is 90 pounds an unhealthy weight for a college student? Yale University seemed to think so, when medical staff put third-year student Frances Chan on watch, telling her to gain weight or risk being suspended.

Anorexia and other eating disorders are nothing to dismiss, especially among college age women in a high-pressure environment. I’m glad Yale offers such thorough medical care that students’ weight is monitored and intervention is offered for those who seem at risk for eating disorders. But does simply being underweight constitute an eating disorder?

Like Chan, who blogged on Huffington Post about her experience of being nearly suspended by Yale, I was once a college student who barely tipped 90 pounds at 5’3”. My legs were so spindly that my knees stuck out. I used a belt to cinch my size three jeans. Most of the time, I hid under oversized sweaters.

That didn’t stop people from talking about me. I could hear them whispering about me, in my dorm and as I walked around campus.

“She looks like she’d snap in half.”
“Give that girl a milkshake!”
“Her legs look like sticks.”

The assumption was that I must have been anorexic. Why else would I have looked the way I did?

I had always been on the smaller side of average, probably due to genetics. My ancestry, like Frances Chan’s, is Taiwanese. My mother is very petite; she never hit a triple-digit weight until her pregnancies. My weight dropped dramatically during my freshman year of college. A few months into the fall semester, I became extremely sick. I was feverish and so weak I could hardly get out of bed. At the student health center, they took a blood test and told me to come back in a few hours. The diagnosis: mono. The prescription: go home and rest until you feel better.

So I went back to my dorm and crawled into bed. But outside my circle of friends no one really knew about this, because after a few days, I was up and about again. I walked a mile to class every morning and back every afternoon. Going home or taking some time off from school wasn’t an option. After all, my parents only expected a few things of me: to go to a good college, become a doctor or engineer, and marry a nice Taiwanese boy. If the first few months of my pre-med curriculum were any indication, their hopes of my becoming a doctor were in jeopardy. A week into my sickness, my boyfriend broke up with me. All I could do was to keep putting one foot in front of the other and go to class.

And unlike Yale, the student health center at my college didn’t monitor my declining weight… or even suggest that I make a follow-up visit. While there was plenty of whispering about my appearance, nobody asked if I had an eating disorder or health problem.

By Christmas, I had lost over 15 pounds. Over the long winter break, I volunteered with my high school speech and debate team. The change in my appearance alarmed my old debate coach, who was the only person to ask if I was okay.

Like Frances Chan, I was self-conscious about the attention I received for being so thin. I ate three square meals a day, including ice cream after every dinner at the dining hall. But unlike Chan, I wasn’t advised to do so by medical staff and there was no threat of being suspended from the university.

While I’m impressed by Yale’s vigilance about the potential for eating disorders, I have so many questions about the way the university handled the case. According to a 2010 article in the Yale Herald, an incoming student must submit medical information, from which her body mass index (BMI) is calculated. The newspaper reports that a BMI below 18 is cause for concern by university officials.

Chan’s BMI may have been low, but her other markers – blood test, urine test, even an EKG test for her heart – showed normal results. Even so, she was forced to see a mental health specialist and a nutritionist. In her Huffington Post essay, she doesn’t seem to find those appointments useful:

"She asked me all of the standard questions -- how I felt about my body, how many calories I ate. I told her everyone's body is beautiful, including mine. When I said I didn't know how many calories, since I don't care to count, she rephrased the question, as if that would help."

The diagnosis of eating disorders among Asian Americans carries some complications. While the perception may be that Asians naturally have smaller, thinner physiques, the reality is that as with other races, Asian women come in a variety of body shapes and sizes. Watch this video with Lisa Lee, co-founder of Thick Dumpling Skin, a website for discussion of eating disorders and body image among Asian Americans, for more.

Thick Dumpling Skin co-founder Lynn Chen, who is also an ambassador for National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), tells me,

“Nobody can tell you if you have an eating disorder except for yourself. So much of it is not about BMI or weight but the obsession.”

This unhealthy relationship with food is exactly what Frances Chan was worried about. She writes that the pressure to bulk up was causing her to obsess about eating high-calorie foods in an attempt to gain three more pounds. Yale officials won’t comment on Chan’s treatment, citing confidentiality, leaving me to wonder why a professional did not prescribe a diet of more nutritious foods. I know I could have benefitted from medically guided diet during my underweight days.

Yale finally agreed to allow Chan to stay in school, after she wrote a letter to the university president and received the endorsement of her family doctor. But the saga isn’t completely over, as Chan must have a health check every semester.

For more information about eating disorders, visit one of these resources:

National Eating Disorders Association Screening Program

Academy for Eating Disorders

Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center

Can You Prevent Your Child's Eating Disorder on BlogHer.

How involved do you think colleges should be when it comes to student health, inlcuding eating disorders?
Do you think other factors besides weight should be taken into account when it comes to diagnosing eating disorders?

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.

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