NPF: PUBLIC SPACES

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 22nd, 2011 by Ed

Just a reminder: No Politics doesn't always mean fun.

I keep a fairly regular schedule during the work week, including going to the gym at basically the same time every day. As a result I tend to see many of the same people every day, at least those who keep similarly regular schedules. Over the past year there is one girl in particular that I've seen nearly every single time I've gone to the gym on campus. If she isn't thrashing away on an elliptical machine when I arrive she's inevitably there when I'm leaving.

I just realized that the opening paragraph sounds like the intro to a 1970s Penthouse Letter, which it is not.

About a year ago when I first noticed her she was an unremarkable undergraduate, perhaps slightly overweight depending on one's definition. As the months passed she exercised herself down to a point that I think would please most people who started going to the gym with the goal of losing weight. I'd say she lost about 20 pounds. Eventually she was Thin. Then she lost more and got down to Sorority Girl Thin. Then she got to a point at which even sorority girls would say "You're too thin." Then over the last month or so she has become truly horrifying. By now she looks like a skeleton, and I mean that in the most literal sense. Her thighs and calves are the same diameter, and her knees are the thickest part of her legs. Her collarbone juts out a good inch or two from her shoulders. Bones that aren't visible on anyone like the humerus and femur are clearly visible on her when she moves. Her skin is yellow and her eyes have that dark, sunken look of a famine victim.

In short, one would have to be rather ignorant to fail to notice that this girl has an active eating disorder, and quite a severe one from the looks of it. Being a generally nosy and outspoken person, it's rare that I see her without wondering If I Should Say Something. Of course I never do. The excuses for avoiding it are so numerous. It's none of my business. She wouldn't care what a stranger says anyway. She might have some rare disease that causes weight loss. I wouldn't tell a large person "You're fat!" so I shouldn't tell this person she's too thin. Her friends and family are probably already intervening. I'm being paternalistic and sexist. And so on.

I don't know about you, but I struggle with this all the time. It bothers me that we all walk around seeing and hearing these…signs and we almost always look the other way. The woman with the black eye. The guy who "likes to party" but clearly drinks too much. The person with track marks on the arm. The friend who's obviously seriously depressed. The dozens of other people with whom we interact regularly and realize that something isn't right.

What do you do, though? Sure, a lot of us suffer from bystander apathy and blissfully live out the Kitty Genovese Effect. But when you do notice and you do think, "I should say something," there's still not much to say or do. It's not like Emily Post has a chapter about how to suggest to a stranger that she might seek help for an eating disorder. This isn't the kind of post that goes anywhere or arrives at a resolution; I don't have an answer, and a lot of things I notice might not be as they appear. But I tend toward hyper-awareness in public spaces and it never fails to bother me when I see things and can't figure out what (if anything) a reasonable person might do about it.