Is Your Weight Your University’s Business?

Posted on April 18, 2014


In a poorly-executed attempt to forestall eating disorders, Yale University has established a history of tormenting underweight students

Back when Lila was a mere wisp of a college student, she was 5’0″ and weighed all of 95 pounds. Sometimes it might even be a bit less. When she joined the Army several years later, her recruiter fretted that she might not make the minimum weight for her height. “Eat some bananas before you go to your physical,” he said (Lila squeaked through with a couple of pounds to spare).

But this was nothing compared to Lila’s co-worker at the time, “Phyllis.” Phyllis was a few inches taller than Lila and actually weighed less, somehow.   We would sometimes joke that if Phyllis was pencil-thin, then Lila was perhaps a Chapstick or something similar.

But you know what didn’t happen to us? Our schools did not butt in and try to manage our weight or punish us for being too thin.  We were there to study, and they were there to determine if we were academically worthy of a degree.  That was all.

Pity poor Yale student Frances Chan, 20, who is 5’2″ and weighs 92 pounds. Yes, one would think that a university’s main focus would be education, grades, maybe future employment for its graduates. But no, Yale is obsessing over Ms. Chan’s weight, or lack of it. When did they become our buttinsky surrogate parents, harping on us to eat more? Worse, when did they decide it’s okay to force students to attend onerous, useless, time-consuming medical appointments, interfering with the classes for which they are paying a rather expensive tuition? When did they decide that slim people should be forcibly referred for mental-health evaluations?  Is it really the schools’ business to threaten students with forced “medical leave” until they meet their narrow expectations of the normal?

Ms. Chan comes from a family that is just naturally thin. All of her medical results – blood tests, EKGs, electrolyte balances – showed a healthy young woman, but as Chan writes, “they won’t look past the number on the scale, to see the person right in front in them.”

Ms. Chan helpfully points us to a 2010 article in Yale’s own Yale Herald to demonstrate that her experience is not an aberration, nor is it particularly new. Several students’ experiences are recounted, but what chilled me the most were the attitudes of the medical professionals quoted in the article. Dr. William Sledge told the Herald that

The main issue in treatment is that the people who need it are usually resistant, denying that there’s anything wrong with them… the “medical dilemma,” to borrow Sledge’s phrase, is a standoff between provider and patient that gives way to a misplaced sympathy for the latter’s “plight,” as if they’re being spoon-fed a standard that is out of reach for them.

Can we see the Catch-22 here? If you’re called to the clinic because you are thin, it’s already game over for you.  There are only two answers to the yes-or-no question of whether you have an eating disorder, and they are both wrong. If you say YES, then you are simply admitting the truth.  If you say NO, that you don’t have an eating disorder, that’s classic denial behavior so you obviously have a disorder.  So, Dr. Sledge, if a person is simply naturally thin, Yale IS force-feeding them a standard that is out of their reach. I find this doubly ironic in light of the fact that Yale does not hunt down obese students and put them on forced diets or exercise programs under threat of suspension; no, that meddling indignity is reserved for the thin ones.

I suspect that Yale feels they have to take on this oversight of skinny students for liability reasons, and maybe they have a (misguided) point. Let a couple of anorexic students keel over in the gym, and the questions and finger-pointing will commence: Why did no one notice this student only weighed 78 pounds? Why did no one do anything? And that great old American standby: We’ll sue!

Maybe that is the crux of the problem; especially with today’s helicopter parenting and long-extended adolescences, maybe there is some kind of general view that colleges really are some kind of transitional parent-figure. But if that is so, then Yale should also force fat students to diet and exercise, lest one of them develop diabetes or have a heart attack. They should keep all of their students just as bubble-wrapped and cocooned as their parents did, meddling and fussing over them like old hens with their chicks. Yes, that’s what I would expect from the most illustrious of our Ivy League schools.  What great preparation for real-world independence.

God forbid anyone actually grow up and become an adult, responsible for themselves, paying tuition merely in exchange for access to an education.

As for Frances Chan, she  has had quite enough of the thin-shaming and persecution.  “I’m done,” she writes.  “No more weigh-ins, no more blood draws. I don’t have an eating disorder, and I will not let Yale Health cause me to develop one. If Yale wants to kick me out, let them try — in the meantime, I’ll be studying for midterms, doing my best to make up for lost time.”

You go, Frances!  And if Yale does try to kick you out for being you, then give ’em hell!