October 31, 2013

Cornell Student Uses Photographs to Fight Stereotypes of Eating Disorders

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When people are asked to imagine a person suffering from anorexia nervosa, most of them think of an underweight, female adolescent — something Laura Zwanziger ’15 is working to change on campus.

For the past month, Zwanziger has been photographing females who have stripped down to their underwear to show that people cannot tell if someone suffers from anorexia based on their body size. The photographs, which only show the models’ torsos, keep all models completely anonymous.

When she finishes the project, Zwanziger plans to juxtapose the photos and ask viewers the question: Can you tell whether someone suffers from anorexia nervosa based solely on his or her body type?

“The answer is no. You can’t,” Zwanziger said.

People generally do not realize that men and women with a variety of body types can suffer from an eating disorder, Zwanziger said. Sometimes, people accuse someone who is naturally thin of having anorexia, while othertimes, people might not notice that someone who has an “atypical” body is suffering from an eating disorder.

Zwanziger has already photographed and talked with at least 20 female students, and she says plans to continue the project until the end of the year.

“What I’m doing is trying to create an open forum where people can feel comfortable talking about eating disorders,” Zwanziger said. “Everyone has a story. But there’s a negative, hush-hush atmosphere about it.”

Gannett officials say that the prevalence of eating disorders at Cornell — two to four percent — is comparable to the general population. In a given year, the Cornell Healthy Eating Program sees about 600 students — 20 percent of whom identify as men, and 80 percent of whom identify as women, according to Randy Patterson, assistant director for Clinical Programs at Gannett, and Amanda Symons, a Gannett counselor.

Patterson and Symons echoed Zwanziger’s message, saying students who have eating disorders come from all cultural, racial, economic and national backgrounds.

“Weight in [and] of itself is by no means an indicator of an eating disorder, as is supported by the fact that the majority of students who seek services for an eating disorder at Gannett are within a normative body weight range,” the two said in an email.

Generally, medical treatments for eating disorders are based on stereotyped classifications of eating disorders, making the process of getting better more difficult for people of different backgrounds and body types, according to Zwanziger. Addressing this medical problem begins with addressing the cultural perception of anorexic people, she said.

Zwanziger’s project has resonated for some beyond the issue of eating disorders to the broader idea of body image. Information about her project is posted in the Human Ecology Building along with a sheet for people to leave comments, where many people expressed appreciation for her efforts.

“The image where the girl is pinching her stomach scares me, because I do that every day,” one anonymous person commented on the poster Zwanziger placed in the Human Ecology Building.