Confronting the Unspoken

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January 31, 2002

 

Mary Adkins

Adkins: a collection of personal stories of disordered eating now basis for a play.

I'm going to be honest. I don't want to be writing this column right now. I sit here facing a blank screen with swollen eyes and a half-eaten jar of peanut butter on my desk, and I am as unhappy as I've ever been."

So began sophomore Mary Adkins' monthly Chronicle column last November. And so began her mission to get the Duke community talking about an issue she has struggled with for more than five years--disordered eating.

Most people who suffer disordered eating try to keep their problem quiet--they don't want their friends or family to find out, they worry about how their peers will perceive them. But for Adkins, telling others about her problem was exactly what she needed to do. "I was sick and tired of living a lie," says Adkins, who has struggled with disordered eating since her freshman year in high school. "I was living a double life."

So Adkins decided to use her Chronicle column to solicit stories from other students facing similar problems. "I have a vision of incorporating your messages into what I hope will be a vehicle for change," she wrote. "We can't change society, but we can change Duke. It will just take a lot of courage, creativity, and a little effort."

Adkins' idea was to meld the stories together into a play about disordered eating. After receiving more than eighty e-mail messages responding to the column, including fifty personal stories from Duke students (two men among them) with disordered eating, Adkins assembled a team of eleven to conduct thirty in-depth interviews. Those interviews will form the basis of the play, a series of monologues, that Adkins is writing now.

Adkins says besides wanting to talk about her own problem, she wrote the column "to suggest that we need to start talking about the topic because it's taboo." She says that while she believes students know the problem exists, it is "more prevalent on campus than people talk about. I would like to see the administration pay this issue as much attention as they pay alcohol, because it's as big a problem."

Too often, plays and movies about disordered eating are "about how the girl makes herself throw up, how she relates to the people around her, but they don't get at why she's doing that." In the movies, she says, when a woman suffers disordered eating and recovers, "she's thin and attractive and still has a boyfriend. People see that and say, 'She got away with it, and I can, too.' "

Adkins doesn't like to go into detail about the specifics of how she tried to lose weight, because she thinks that "glorifies the disease in a way that entices people rather than deters them." She says that a number of interviewees had said that after watching a popular television movie about disordered eating, they "learned how to be anorexic."

A Benjamin N. Duke Scholar, Adkins says her appearance has always been a big part of her identity. "I was the pretty girl who made good grades, and being pretty and neat, I learned early on to associate that with being successful."

Through high school, the intensity of her disordered eating fluctuated, but during spring semester of her freshman year, it got to be too much. "When I first came to Duke, I was too busy being a freshman" to think about her appearance, she says.

But then, she says she began to feel she didn't compare to her peers. "I gained weight at the beginning [of the year], and that made me less than average. And that wasn't acceptable. I'm used to being the best, like everyone else here." She finally confronted her mother about the issue, and began going to therapy.

Adkins, who also sings in the a cappella group Lady Blue and teaches dance classes to students from the West End Community Center, says she thinks for someone suffering from disordered eating, Duke can be an especially tough place to live. "A problem like this is contagious....When you're around people who are living in this competitive atmosphere academically, the competition transcends academics into other arenas, too. We go to a prestigious university, we want to be successful. It's a positive and negative thing."

In response to Adkins' column, Duke Student Government passed a resolution in December calling for the hiring of an eating-disorders coordinator to streamline the efforts of the different campus groups working on the issue.