In a recent scandal with Yale University, a student who showed signs of malnutrition challenged the standards which were used to judge her. Frances Chan, who at 5’2 and 90lbs claimed to have been naturally thin her whole life, showed a body mass index, or BMI which was dangerously low. Because of her low BMI, a ratio calculated on an individual’s weight and height, Yale health officials feared that she was anorexic, despite her ardent protestations.
Following guidelines set down for students who show signs of having an eating disorder, Chan was required to mandatory weekly weigh-ins as well as sessions with a mental health professional and a nutritionist. Throughout the process Chan continued to assure officials she and her family had always been very petite, and that she has a healthy relationship with food. She also went to extreme measures to try and put on the extra weight asked of her, despite the negative effect the focus on food had for her.
“By forcing standards upon us that we cannot meet, the University plays the same role as fashion magazines and swimsuit calendars that teach us about the “correct shape” of the human body.”
Since her stand against being judged simply by her BMI, she says Yale has admitted they made a mistake in how they handled her particular case. While college students can be particularly prone to eating disorders, the reliance on BMI measurements alone is not the only, and certainly not always the strongest indicator of an eating disorder. Chan has also said that in retrospect, she can respect the stance the University took and why, but she wishes they would have taken a more discerning look at her case from the beginning.
Diagnosing students with an eating disorder requires looking at many factors, including; talking to friends and family to see if there has been a change in behavior, looking at previous medical records, a pediatric growth chart, and acknowledging the patients feelings about their body, health and food. Eating disorders are typically characterized by distorted body image, responses to pressures to look a certain way, and a desire to achieve that goal despite potential health risks.
When friends and family came to her defense, and appealed to the school, her new doctor took in all the appropriate factors and decided Chan was healthy. By broadening the spectrum of diagnosis, siting how many students who may suffer from disordered eating might not always have the BMI reflecting such, Frances Chan succeed in bringing up an important point about eating disorders- you can’t tell who has one just by looking at them.