Taking engineering too far
Food, weight, and body image in grad school
This post is part of a special issue: “Mental Health Matters: Asking for Help & Reaching Out”.
I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t trying to lose weight. When I’m sitting in my office and can’t focus on my work because I can’t stop thinking about how much fat I have in my body, it’s like I’m the same person that I was in middle school, sitting in the cafeteria trying to figure out how little I could eat for lunch and still make it through the day. The first thing they teach you in therapy groups for this kind of thing is that eating disorders are present in your life to serve a purpose. I don’t know when or how it started, but I know now that during grad school, I’ve been restricting my food intake as a way of feeling powerful in a harsh academic environment where I often feel powerless.
I was very much on the fence about attending my first session of MIT Medical’s “Making Peace with Food” therapy group. I knew objectively that what I was doing was not healthy, and I wished so badly that I could get rid of the anxiety I felt about my body. But, on the other hand, restricting my food felt so effective. I truly believed that I was more productive when I was limiting what I ate. It felt like having my food intake under control was the first step to being organized and efficient in all other areas of my life.
As materials engineers, we learn how to control systems down to the movement of the electrons. We make changes to materials to see how we can make them better. And isn’t my body the perfect system to experiment on? I can make nanostructures in almost any geometry I want or manipulate an electron beam to see individual atoms, but as powerful as that makes me feel, there are factors outside of my control. Experiments fail, equipment breaks, professors change their minds. Putting food into my body became the only aspect of my life that I independently controlled. Finally, I found a system that I could engineer to perfection.
Meeting other grad students who had the same thoughts helped me realize that my mentality surrounding food was problematic. We learned to identify “behaviors” – things that people without an eating disorder wouldn’t do but we thought was “normal”: eating ice cubes instead of food, eating a box of tic tacs or chewing gum instead of having a snack, constantly pinching our stomachs. By talking about my experiences, I came to understand that I controlled my food when I was most stressed. At the end of my first year, when I was balancing research with preparing for my qualifying exam, I entered everything I ate into a calorie-tracking app and was ecstatic to find out that I was consuming less than 1000 calories per day. I would often feel intense pain in my stomach and experience dizziness, but I thought that meant I was sick, not hungry, so I took that as an indication that I shouldn’t eat or I would feel worse. It also probably didn’t help that I wouldn’t take my iron supplements even though I’m anemic because they made me hungry and that meant I would have to eat more.
Even after knowing all of this, I’m still torn between losing weight and letting go of my anxiety surrounding food. I’ve gained some weight in the past year or so, and I know I’m healthier. I don’t shiver as I fall asleep, and I don’t think I look or feel as fragile. But I know that the attitudes I’ve developed about my body throughout my lifetime won’t go away overnight. The best I can do is understand the purpose of these destructive thoughts and challenge them one at a time.
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