Today, I was walking through my schools student center (where all of our main dining areas are) when I happened to stumble upon a sign by the staircase. Said sign read: JOIN OUR FAST-A-THON followed by small print that read: “Fast during daylight hours and a sponsor will donate money on your behalf” (note that it didn’t say where the money would be donated to or how much would be donated). On the table, there was a sign that said, in color block letters “WHAT DOES FASTING MEAN TO YOU?” Underneath, people had written responses such as “hunger,” “self-control,” and “willpower.”
I stopped. I turned around. I walked up to the table, where the people manning it asked me if I wanted to join the group. I politely told them that fasting wasn’t a good fit for me and asked if I could take a picture of the sign, to which they responded yes and said I could write something down as well. Again, I politely declined and again they asked me I wanted to join the group. I took the photo, said thank you, and walked away.
I don’t know if it’s because of my own personal experiences with a restrictive eating disorder, but the sign made my heart race. Take the words out of context: “hunger,” “self-control,” “willpower.” Those were the words that people so commonly used when I was in the depth of my illness–“how do you not eat? That must take so much willpower?” or “wow, you have so much self-control to not eat the ice cream.”
But I didn’t have willpower. I didn’t have self-control. I had self loathing and anxiety. I know that most people who fast for a day will look at it as just that: a day without eating for money that goes to a good cause. And maybe fasting for a day may not have health consequences but whenever you encourage a group of young, impressionable people to restrict their diets for the day, you risk one member becoming addicted. So many eating disorders begin as healthy ways to lose weight and spiral out of control. Fasting is another doorway to an eating disorder.
Perhaps the problem with fasting for a good cause isn’t the act itself, it’s the rhetoric we use to discuss it. Rhetoric that is not only annoying, but harmful. In saying that not eating is something that requires willpower, we imply that denying your body what it needs to survive is a sign of strength, that it is something to be envied. It connects hunger, a sign that our bodies are missing nutrients, to the idea of power, of control which most of us strive for.
So maybe the problem isn’t with fasting. Maybe the campus group is trying to do good. But until we rephrase the way we talk about diets and food restriction, no foundation will be laid for paths towards eating what your body wants when it wants it.
(February 4, 2015)