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Too Skinny to Go to Yale?

yale1-1384341473Can a university really threaten suspension because of how much (or how little) someone weighs?  If they’re an IV league school like Yale, apparently the answer is “yes.”  The school told student Frances Chan she had to gain weight if she wanted to stay, says this report.  She tells her own story in a Huffington Post article entitled, “Yale University Thinks I Have an Eating Disorder.”

Frances Chan comes from a long line of naturally thin people.  The 5’2″ student weighed 92 pounds when medical professionals at Yale put her on notice.  She was subjected to regular weigh-ins to monitor her weight.  This drove her to do everything she could to gain. She says in the Huff Post piece:

Finally, I decided to start a weight-gain diet. If I only had to gain two pounds, it was worth a shot to stop the trouble. I asked my health-conscious friends what they do to remain slim and did the exact opposite. In addition to loading up on carbs for each meal, I’ve eaten 3-4 scoops of ice cream twice a day with chocolate, cookies, or Cheetos at bedtime. I take elevators instead of stairs wherever possible.

We’ve blogged before about the way fit and fat can come apart.  We’ve also talked about why thin-shaming is as unacceptable as fat-shaming.  It’s not that eating disorders aren’t something we should care about. But not everyone who is thin necessarily has an eating disorder. And in any case, eating disorders are not grounds for suspension from university!

It’s not even clear that people can be forced to address their eating disorders without compromising their autonomy. See my post “Ana, Mia, and the Health Imperative: Do We Have to Eat for Our Health?”  The approach they took was intrusive and in violation of Chan’s right to bodily autonomy.  Imagine if they’d gone after her for being overweight?  For all we know, Yale does that, too.

The problem, claims Chan, is not that Yale is concerned about students with eating disorders. Rather, it’s that they use BMI as their primary diagnostic tool. BMI is not a good measure of individual health.  In fact, as Sam outlines in “Fit, Fat, and What’s Wrong with BMI,” it was designed as a way of measuring health across populations.

The good news story (because remember, I have made a commitment to blog about happy and empowering things this month)?   Chan used it as an opportunity to tell her story to a wider audience and to raise awareness about eating disorders. The  Huffington Post article ends with this notice:

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

And in an epilogue to the story, Chan reports on her Facebook page that Yale has backed down and one of the medical staff apologized:

“Positive updates from Yale Health 🙂 “Just visited Yale Health with my parents and met with a new doctor. She apologized repeatedly for the ‘months of anguish’ I went through and admitted that BMI is not the end all be all. She also looked at my medical records since freshman year (which the previous clinician had not done) and noted that she saw that my weight had remained around the same. So she trusts that I do not have an eating disorder and admitted that ‘we made a mistake.’ She also does not want me to feel uncomfortable coming to Yale Health if I get a flu or something. I do still have to see them, but at most once a semester. And I’ll be away for the coming year, so….LET TIME BE A MIGHTY RIVER!!!”

10 thoughts on “Too Skinny to Go to Yale?

  1. This is so unfortunate to me. I really feel for her PLUS I hate that all of this effort and attention on behalf of the school acting as ED hunters directs their resources towards finding (and punishing) those who LOOK like they have an issue instead of providing resources for those who are working through one and want or need help! UGH!

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  2. This seems like such a waste of focus and resources here. At my university, this semester I know several students who are struggling with the suicides of friends or family who have returned from military service in Afghanistan or Iraq. There are many real mental and physical health needs on the part of our students, and devoting time and energy to demonstrated problems would be a better use of university resources. I can only hope that this mess at Yale has resulted in some rethinking there.

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  3. I am all for schools providing resources for students in psychological distress but this is outrageous. I’m glad they’ve backtracked on this one.

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  4. What I think bothers me the most about this is the presumed connection between weight/BMI and having an eating disorder. I think that’s bad for the naturally thin like her for all the reasons outlined – but it’s also very bad for those who do have eating disorders but are within the normal BMI range.

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  5. I understand the concern here for the student, but I am concerned that there really isn’t a way for a school to win. I work at an Ivy League university, and it is a really difficult and fine line to walk when it comes to monitoring your students for mental and physical health issues (I’m not sure about public universities or their standards although I did go to a major public university and did not experience the same type of oversight). As professors, we are told that we should report everything to the university because many of our students do have major eating disorders or psychological issues. If the student had an eating disorder and the university failed to do something, people would be just as up in arms; if the student became seriously ill because of that disorder, the university and even her professors might be blamed for not catching it sooner (and blame in these situations often comes down to lawsuits or other drastic measures-no kidding). Yes, the university should have worked with the student to try to resolve the issue more quickly, but the mere fact that they monitored her because of her weight should not be the issue (this might not be your issue but it has been the case on other media outlets). In addition, many people have said they should have just listened to the student. Well, many students that are mentally or physically under stress and ill at college are in denial. The university probably has a system that says that students that show signs of eating disorders should be monitored (and in this case the sign is BMI- not necessarily perfect but probably telling in 99% of cases). It is most likely in place because many students in high stress situations suffer from these issues (binge drinking, major depression, eating disorders and especially exercise addiction are common on my campus) and they have headed off major problems in the past and helped other students with this system. Unfortunately (or fortunately because the student was not sick) this student was the exception to the rule- but does that mean we should throw out these preventative and helpful measures? Or is it possible to work to make them better? I think this student is doing that. I just don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. I have helped catch several students in my classes with major psychological issues before they completely fell out of the system and I’m proud that my university cares so much for their students that they are trying so hard to recognize these conditions. I struggled as an undergraduate at a major public university and I knew no one cared or even noticed.

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    1. I agree with you that it’s good to be concerned about students’ health. But the literal threat if suspension seems out of line, as does ignoring the student’s claims about family history. I totally get that students with eating disorders (and all sorts of mental illnesses) need help, but how far is too far? We are after all dealing with adults.

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  6. Pardon???….since when was a student’s health tied to university admission?? Is she competing on the university’s athletic team?

    This is actually discriminatory!! Think about….if we barred a blind/deaf or someone with colitis or cancer from university.

    I would have failed Yale –I am 5’1″ and was 93-95 lbs. for many years during and after university.

    And I never had an eating disorder at all. Never have. I inherited genes from my parents who have smaller bone structures….father actually has smaller bones than mom but he has been underweight most of his life. For him it’s hard work and healthy diet. As anyone knows traditional Asian diets: very little sugar, lots of veggies, some meat, fresh fruit, less dairy.

    If Frances is Asian (based on her last name)…then she is like I was…just born with smaller bone frame, eats well because she was raised on a reasonably healthy diet.

    Yes, at that weight, I was eating rice nearly 80% of my dinners, etc. A well-rounded heavily Asian oriented traditional diet.

    (I suppose now, people think I may still have an eating disorder. I am 100 lbs. but 55 yrs. I eat probably too much sugar. I just bike daily /often….because no car ownership.)

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  7. When I was a campus recreation director I was faced with the issue of my student staff approaching me about female students who were exercising excessively on our fitness floor and examining their ribs in the mirrors. It disturbed my staff and I sought out resources for the school’s policy on how to handle the issue. This happened twice, once at each of two schools I worked at. At the public university I worked at it was a very hands off approach in that we could approach the female student if we wanted to and offer her some literature on eating disorders and help lines. At the private university I worked at we reported the student’s information to the student health department and there was contact made via that department. The female student was almost “suspended” from the recreation center during a probationary period. I’m not sure either approach was correct, but I do think that schools should take responsibility for the health of their students. I really like the ideals behind this http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/11/01/spelman-eliminates-athletics-favor-campus-wide-wellness-initiative but still don’t know if it’s the only answer.

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  8. This was the only feminist blog I could find that brought awareness to this particular situation. I am constantly being told by other feminists about how thin shaming either doesn’t exist or is simply a “minor annoyance” that comes with the “privilege” of being thin. They dismiss my very real experiences with bullying by citing studies that “prove” I’m privileged. For people who are supposedly so educated, they fail to notice that studies that suggest thin privilege actually indicate an advantage to those who fall into the medically defined normal BMI range – not those who are below it, like Frances Chan. Being below the normal BMI range makes you a target for daily bullying, by both friends and strangers. It is not a compliment to be accused of having an eating disorder or to be called a gross, disgusting skeleton by passersby. It’s not a privilege to have to safety pin your clothes just to hold them, because you’re too thin to fit into any standard size. I won’t get too deep into the class issue here, but will simply say: yes, I get that expensive shops like Lululemon exclude you. But think about poor/working class women who can only shop at places like Wal-Mart. Did you know they only go down to size 4? Before having children, I would have had to gain 40 lbs to fit into a size 4 (literally). I couldn’t afford expensive stores that MIGHT carry something small enough to fit me, and I couldn’t afford alterations. I understand women this thin are an extreme minority, but we still matter. Feminists should be outraged by this example of discrimination and female body policing done by Yale. But they’re not. Thanks for being the exception.

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