Where Do Eating Disorders Fit in With 'The New Campus PC'?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In all our discussion of trigger warnings in college classrooms, I haven’t yet seen much mention of eating disorders or similarly contagious self-destructive behaviors. Frankly, these disorders are what I first think of when I see the much-maligned hashtags used to signal triggers. I recognize this is because of my background—as a white, upper middle-class young woman who hasn’t been personally affected by violence due to my family’s skin color and who instead has wrestled with an assortment of self-harm proclivities.

Though I’ve been stewing about this omission since the conversation started this summer, Katy Waldman’s piece out today on Slate gave me the nudge to address it. Waldman looks specifically at themes and examples of anorexia in classical literature, the stuff of many an English department syllabus:

Because the channels through which [anorexia] flows and acts are so often linguistic, the disorder has inspired a perverse literary tradition, replete with patron saints (Catherine of Siena, herself a twin, who recorded the details of her miraculous asceticism in letters she sent to aspiring female mystics), glamorous elders (Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath), tropes (fairies, snow), and devices (paradox, irony, the unreliable narrator). “Anorexic literature” commits the inherently literary, self-mythologizing qualities of anorexia to paper. From the novels of Charles Dickens to the poetry of Louise Glück, it contains and reproduces something more amoebic, perhaps more dangerous, than dieting tips: a specific persona and sensibility.

You really must read the rest of the piece to get an idea of how deeply ingrained such notions of women’s bodies are in Western culture. My thought is how and whether professors should reckon with them and what images they might be complicit in perpetuating.

On the one hand, we’re talking about classic texts that help inform a student’s appreciation of literature. And what if presenting the romanticized, waifish image as a problem gives it even more power? Here’s psychiatrist Sarah Roff in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “One of my biggest concerns about trigger warnings is that they will apply not just to those who have experienced trauma, but to all students, creating an atmosphere in which they are encouraged to believe that there is something dangerous or damaging about discussing difficult aspects of our history.”

But on the other hand, forcing someone who’s struggled with body dysmorphia to wallow in it, thus reinforcing their distorted ideas of what’s “good” in both body and conduct, puts their mental health at serious risk. The concept of eating disorders as a contagious phenomenon is ground that is well tread (and, to be sure, frequently challenged) in psychology. Classrooms, “safe spaces” or no, aren’t therapist offices. In teaching these works, there’s potential to push a predisposed but not yet disordered mind over the edge.

That’s not to say bowing to every trigger would be an easy—or even possible—endeavor for universities. Food, bodies, and mere mention of them are everywhere, and triggers are acutely personalized devices. The social, digital, and intellectual spheres all present minefields for those with histories of disordered eating.

I’ve been past the worst of my disorder for a few years now, but to illustrate, here are some of the things I’m vaguely triggered by when I come to work every day: the title of Carrie Brownstein’s new memoir, which is sitting on my desk because I couldn’t help but grab it from the mountain of books sent to The Atlantic for review; questions or comments about what I’m eating at any time (sorry, coworkers, for being the worst-ever conversant in the break room); the sight of a rolled-up yoga mat at someone’s desk, suggesting they’re off to a class after work, suggesting I, too, should go exercise after work, even though I’ve already logged at least an hour of cardio that morning—every morning, without fail, lest the world come crashing down around me.

At this point in my recovery, I won’t curl into a ball when I come across these things. But I notice a dampening on my motivation, work performance, and mood for quite a while after.

In short, college administrators are no match for the eating disordered mind. Trying to write this note while being sensitive to its potential triggers has been hard on its own, and still there will be some poor soul who will inevitably stumble on it and lose the rest of the day to their own personal brand of hell.

So I open it up to you: Should college departments be expected to consider the particular risks of eating disorders as they lay out course requirements? Is it more irresponsible to leave some of these texts off the syllabus than it is to include them? Or is there a different approach colleges should be taking so students can, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt put it, “question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them”? Shoot me your thoughts—hello@theatlantic.com.