When I came to Swarthmore, I didn’t realize how different life on campus would be from life at home. I certainly didn’t think about how different food at campus would be from food at home. I come from a South Asian household in New York City. The food I eat there is not exactly what is served at Sharples. More than that, however, the dining atmosphere at Sharples is not that of my apartment in Queens.
My first semester at Swarthmore, I ate every meal with friends. Because it was a new semester with new people, I didn’t know many of my friends very well. I would bring back a tray with a plate or two of food that I knew I should eat and we would sit in Sharples for an hour, talking about the silly and the not-so-silly, while my food lay untouched and go cold. Off to the next thing, I would eat a few bites in a rush, gulp down half a glass of soda, and leave Sharples. Hours later, I would get hungry and eat some of the snacks my mother had sent me in care packages: bowls of Korean ramen, Indian potato chips, Oreos, and fists of fun-sized chocolate bars.
Things got worse during the spring. I started eating even less. I wasn’t doing it on purpose, I just wasn’t particularly hungry. I also wasn’t particularly happy. I missed home and I felt incredibly lonely in this new place that, months into the school year, still felt strange to me. I loved studying at Swarthmore, but I wasn’t quite comfortable living at Swarthmore. I ate tiny portions in the dining hall and hunted for midnight snacks later. I didn’t notice that anything was wrong because no one else noticed anything was wrong. At the time, many of my friends must have thought I had naturally strange eating habits. What’s funny is how I had no strange eating habits at home.
While I was taking aquatics that semester, I noticed there was something off about my menstruation cycle. My instructor encouraged me to go to Worth Health Center for a general check-up. When they checked my weight, I found out that I had lost close to 15 pounds. The doctor asked me questions: if I worked out, if I was eating enough, etc.. When she asked me about my eating habits, I realized how stupid I had been. I hadn’t been eating enough for a long time, and I thought it was okay because some days I would eat the right amount.
Worth gave me two weeks to improve my eating habits on my own. If I couldn’t, I would start seeing the dietician. I started keeping a food diary as suggested by the doctor, calculating the number of calories I would consume in a day. Up until that time, I didn’t realize that tea (without sugar or milk) has no calories. To be honest, I don’t think I understood anything about food groups or vitamins.
By the end of freshman year, I started practicing good eating habits. But they weren’t perfect. They are slightly inconsistent and maybe they always will be. The reasons I lost my appetite at Swarthmore are hard for me to pin down. Sometimes, I think it was because I didn’t want to talk with food in my mouth to people who weren’t family – and boy, do I like to talk. What’s more, the food was so different from what I was used to eating, what I loved eating. Maybe dinner was too early for me (at home I eat dinner close to 9 p.m.). Sometimes I would have a hard day or a bad day and not want to do anything, not even eat.
As a junior, I am still not the best eater. The term the doctor at Worth used was disordered eating. She encouraged me to eat more, in bigger portions, to focus on my plate and nothing else at meals. I started doing that and it has helped.
Every so often, I have a meal alone. I do some reading and listen to music and make sure I eat until I am full. Sometimes if I think I am having a bad day, I order out and eat in bed while watching episodes of The Cosby Show.
Now, my friends help me. Sometimes my friends prod me to eat more and, though it is a bit annoying, I appreciate the gesture. I ask friends to pay attention to how much I eat to help me check myself. There was a time when no one noticed how much I was eating. I wonder if things would have been different if someone had noticed and said something to me.
Eating has become hard for me. It wasn’t always that way. Perhaps that was because at home my mother kept an eye on me. Living away from home means there is no one who is responsible for me. I make my own decisions, and sometimes, I still foolishly decide to eat a tiny dinner.
I would like to think that I do this less and less as time goes on. I would like to think that I am getting better at maintaining a good appetite, but there are always days when I am stressed or unhappy or just generally not at my best. The real difference is that I have started to talk about my eating habits with my friends. Unlike freshman year, now there are plenty of people who look at my full plate and ask me what’s wrong or encourage me to eat more.
Speak 2 Swatties is Swarthmore’s student-run peer counseling and mental health advocacy organization. Speak 2 Swatties is confidential. Speak to one of our peer counselors in person or call our hotline at 765-727-0555. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please contact the National Eating Disorder Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. Helpline hours are from 9:00 A.M to 5:00 P.M. EST.