Score. My own institution made Jezebel’s headlines yet again this evening: “Yale Threatens to Kick Woman Out of School for Being Too Skinny.” Said woman is Frances Chan, and according to a Huffington Post essay that she herself wrote last month, she is a 5’2″, 92-pound, 20 year-old undergrad whom the university’s health services decided was dangerously underweight. She writes:
In the past three weeks alone, I have spent ten hours at Yale Health, our student health center. Since December, I have had weekly weigh-ins and urine tests, three blood tests, appointments with a mental health counselor and a nutritionist, and even an EKG done to test my heart. My heart was fine — as it always has been — and so was the rest of my body.
I’ve always been small. I’ve been 5’2” and 90 pounds since high school, but it has never led to any illnesses related to low weight or malnutrition. My mom was the same; my whole family is skinny. We all enjoy Mom’s fabulous cooking, which included Taiwanese beef noodle soup, tricolor pasta, strawberry cheesecake, and cream puffs, none of which make the Weight Watchers shortlist. I just don’t gain weight easily.
FRANCES (if I may), I FEEL YOU. I can’t convey how much reading this story made my blood boil, as I myself have been on the receiving end of similar scolding for my skinniness.
I have been skinny my entire life. When I say skinny, I mean I am 5’3″ and didn’t break 100 pounds until I started my Ph.D. studies. I mean that I have eaten whatever I’ve wanted (ribs, pizza, steaks, pie, pasta, 3×3′s at In-N-Out, and yes, the occasional fruit and vegetable), whenever I’ve wanted (every few hours, especially before bed), and have never been anything but rail thin. My cholesterol is low, my blood sugar is normal, and I’ve gone through stretches of regular exercise (years as a swimmer) as well as long sedentary periods. None of these things has ever seemed to affect my weight. As far as I know, this is due mainly to genetics. I have a dress my mother had custom-made for herself when she was 23, and at that age it fit me perfectly, too. My grandma jokes about my dad’s grade school teacher asking whether his family could “afford milk,” he was so thin as a kid.
Folks, I would have been psyched to gain a few pounds. I would have praised the LORD if I could have found clothes off the rack that didn’t hang off me like tents and make me even more “un-girly” than I already was. If I’d known who St. Jude was back then, I would have been sending up novenas for a larger waistline. I hated being thin, and I was made fun of for it from pre-school to high school. I can still remember how the owner of one of my family’s favorite restaurants would greet me: “So skinny! You look like starving child from Africa!” (Yep. This was back when those “Christian Children’s Fund” spots were on every other channel. Probably they still are.) To this day clothes shopping brings on waves of anxiety as I wait for the inevitable, “Sorry, that’s the smallest size we carry. Maybe you should eat some donuts, har har” remark. (Which female sales associates will usually realize is something of a back-handed compliment, and so they’ll follow it with a “I’m such a fatty; I wish I had your problem.” Thanks, ladies. Now we can both feel bad about our bodies.)
To get health services off her back, Chan eventually resorted to stuffing herself with junk food.
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.
Eventually, the scale said I was two pounds heavier. When I saw her last Friday, I felt my stomach tighten, my heart racing. Would I finally be granted parole?
“You’ve gained two pounds, but that still isn’t enough. Ideally, you should go up to 95 pounds.” I hung my head in disbelief.
Again, I feel her. I’ve tried “fattening up” my diet in the past, only to be disappointed when I stepped on the scale.
Well guess what. Amid all our culture’s obsession with policing larger people, which might lead you to think that all women are counting calories like it’s going out of style, there also exist some people who just stay skinny, no matter how much they eat. Often (by no means always), it’s called being Asian. Or being Scandinavian. Both of which I am. One of which Frances Chan is.
But according to the BMI (Body Mass Index), which the university’s health services apparently give a lot of credence to, the wrong height-weight ratio must mean that something is seriously wrong with you. Never mind that people in the scientific community have been pointing out for years now that the BMI is deeply flawed, not least because it is based on the bodies of white men and women. But pshh, who cares about how racism operates through the societal and medical disciplining of bodies? Who does Frances Chan think she is, walking into the health center with her Taiwanese self?
Who did I think I was, walking into Student Health a few years ago with a sinus infection? I was sitting on the exam table with a congested nose and a toothache when a nurse came into the room, told me to strip down, and get on the scale. “Oh, they already took my weight when I came in today,” I said.
“No,” she said, “we need you take your weight again. The head of Student Health saw you in the hallway, and he’s asked us to.”
Who doesn’t love the clinical male gaze, especially when it’s unexpected, am I right?
I was mortified, so I gave a laugh and said in a jokey tone, “Oh, you want to make sure I don’t have lead fishing weights in my pockets, huh?” Man, that nurse gave me the coldest stare down I’ve ever gotten when I said that. So I got on the scale, and in my embarrassment again tried to break the tension by saying, “If you’ve got any tips for weight gain, I’d sure like to move up from a size 00.” Silence, and a frown, from the nurse. One more try: “I’m half Filipino, half Swedish. That makes for a big nose, but not much else big.”
An increased frown by the nurse, followed by an accusatory, “You’re underweight. Your BMI is in the ‘underweight’ range. Do you know that?” No, lady, I made it through twenty-plus years of life in America without ever realizing that my body was not “average.” This information is a complete revelation to me.
I switched to my serious (but no less flushed) face when I realized humor wasn’t helping and explained that she could phone up my family doctor, who could confirm that I was, in fact, just really skinny, had always been really skinny, and had never been anything but healthy. She responded curtly, “Well, I’ll have to check with the doctor here to see what he wants to do. You can get dressed now,” and walked out of the room. Thank God I never heard back from them. (Though I do wonder whenever I go for an appointment whether there are any eyes scoping me out as I walk down the hallway.)
But the university hounded Frances Chan, along with, it turns out, several other students over the years. The Yale Herald ran a story back in 2010 on just this sort of bullying on the part of clinicians toward skinny students (all female?), and I encourage you to check it out. (And take a look at this story on the school’s treatment of a depressed girl, while you’re at it.)
And here’s the most absurd aspect of all this. If these women didn’t have eating disorders or body-image issues going in, the university’s health services are doing a damn fine job of making sure they develop them. As Chan concludes, our school’s reliance on the BMI
subjects students who have a personal and family history of low weight to treatment that harms our mental health. 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.
I was scheduled to have a mental health appointment at 9:00 a.m. and a weigh-in at 10:30 a.m. this past Friday. But I’m done. 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.
I say rock on, Frances Chan, all 92 pounds of you, and may you only eat ice cream when you feel like it. (Maybe you take lactase pills like I do.)