Frances Chan has a problem many of us wish we had: She just can't gain weight. But her naturally slim frame became a real issue when Yale University accused the 20-year-old junior of having an eating disorder and threatened to kick her out of school if she didn't gain weight immediately.
Chan called out the university in her Huffington Post essay “Yale University Thinks I Have an Eating Disorder.” She initially sought medical help through the university for a breast lump, but the doctor instead focused on her low weight. Chan writes, “I met with a clinician on December 4 and was told that the ‘concern’ was my low weight and that I would meet with her for weekly weigh-ins. These appointments were not optional.” She adds that the clinician threatened to put her on medical leave if she did not comply.
In an attempt to gain weight, she started downing cookies and ice cream. She also submitted to a battery of physical exams to prove she was healthy, had her medical records sent to the university, and had her family chime in about how they're all of a similar build.
But it wasn't until Chan went to the media—and reports surfaced from other female students who had been similarly harassed—that Yale finally backed down. The university issued a public statement that while it is unable to comment on individual cases, "Yale provides exceptional health care services, and the health and welfare of all of our students is our primary concern."
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That may be true, but Lynn S. Grefe, president and CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), says the major flaw in Yale's health policy is diagnosing an eating disorder based on only one criterion: weight. "BMI was intended for populations, not to be used on an individual level. It is not a good barometer of health," she says.
There is a constellation of factors that must be considered together when diagnosing someone with an eating disorder, including medical and psychological components, Grefe adds. "A big part of it is mental. How consumed by her weight is she? Is food or dieting all she talks about? Is she isolating herself or withdrawing from her life?"
Ultimately, weight can raise a red flag, but unless the other criteria are met, it doesn't signal an eating disorder.
"This was weight discrimination," Grefe says of Chan's case. "The bottom line is about helping people be healthy and that's what we should be talking about, not how many pounds they weigh."
If you need more information about eating disorders, you can contact NEDA at its website or through the helpline 1-800-931-2237.