Trigger warnings: Disordered Eating.
I came into freshman year with an intense fear of the “freshman 15,” and, this fall, I’m sure there were countless women walking onto campus experiencing the same pervasive fear. It wasn’t irrational, and yes, it is great to be health conscious, but thoughts about food and my weight became too dominant to be healthy. Meals were mentally draining. I found myself in a grey area of disordered thoughts about food, possibly heading towards a full-on disorder.
But soon, I got used to the fast, wonderful rhythm of life as a student-athlete at Yale. Luckily, my focus shifted away from the scale and towards helping my team score enough points to win an Ivy League Championship. To achieve this goal, which we ultimately did, I had to eat well and plentifully to fuel my training. It sounds simple, but for an athletic woman surrounded by feminine beauty ideals, it is not. What eventually brought me back to a healthy mindset were my teammates, who held such healthy and smart outlooks on their bodies.
Obviously, the attitude that a female athlete takes regarding her body is of huge importance, and team culture can encourage either healthy or unhealthy body image ideals. Words, behaviors, and even thoughts spread rapidly throughout a tight network of teammates who spend countless hours training and eating together.
Nicolas Christakis, sociologist, physician, and former Head of Silliman, studies these real-life social networks and face-to-face interactions and how diseases and ideas spread through them. I encourage each of you to watch his Ted Talk on social networks. Christakis found in studying obesity, for example, that if your “if your friends are obese, your risk of obesity is 45% higher. And… if your friend's friends are obese, your risk of obesity is 25 percent higher… If your friend's friend's friend, someone you probably don't even know, is obese, your risk of obesity is 10 percent higher.” Only in the fourth degree of separation is there no statistical relationship between two people’s body size; your social influence can stretch to roughly three degrees of separation before it fades out.
This research got me thinking. An eating disorder is not an infectious disease like the flu or HIV; mental disorders are individualistic, but research shows eating disorders display contagious behaviors as well. A 1999 case study of young women in Fiji looked at the introduction of American television to the island, and thus, the introduction of Western beauty ideals. Shows like Beverly Hills, 90210 glorified the thin woman’s body, a foreign idea that ran counter to Fiji’s cultural norms. Reports of body dissatisfaction and eating disorders in young women on the island skyrocketed.
Human social networks are important vectors through which infectious diseases can spread, and the tighter the network, the faster they penetrate. Eating disorders must then also travel in this way. If a distant American actress across a television screen can perpetuate disordered thoughts, so too can the friend sitting right beside you.
However, these same social networks do not exist just to spread epidemics. They connect us to those we love and are what make us uniquely human. A lot of negative things spread through these systems, but more importantly, positive things do too.
Christakis found that happiness spreads. Optimism spreads. I can’t explain how or why, but I know firsthand that healthy attitudes towards food and body image are powerful and contagious, too. The great effects of these positive attitudes are not given enough recognition. They can be used to target potential eating disorders in the “grey area” I found myself in. The lines between complete health and disorder are quite blurry, and the swing space between must be discussed.
I do not believe that there is a single woman out there who has not struggled with her body or with food. So, if you can, recognize and counteract negative body talk with positive talk. Staying silent makes one susceptible to negativity, so be conscious to spread healthy outlooks instead of being passive. Constructive social interactions are not antidotes nor cures to eating disorders, but they really can help especially in the early stages of a disorder.
We are each an influential part of Yale’s tight network and beyond. Spread good things through it.
By Beatrix Thompson.