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When a Stranger In a Bookstore Mistakenly Assumed I Had an Eating Disorder

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I was in Barnes and Noble during winter break, shopping for journals and activity books, because I am a college student too broke to go on vacation. I find Barnes and Noble a place of peace—I love being surrounded by books, avid readers, Starbucks, and puzzles. It is a store of people looking for an escape to the world of Harry Potter or Middle Earth, to go back in time to the 1950’s, to delve into the life of a founding father. Barnes and Nobles contains so many stories—and therefore so many worlds—which people can explore to learn, and cultivate their minds. Though a public store, for me, it is a place of security and open-mindedness. On this particular day, I was upstairs, looking at music books, when a woman approached me.

“Excuse me, can I speak to you for a moment?”

“Uh…sure.” I replied, thinking that she was going to try to convert me to another religion or invite me to her band’s gig at an obscure coffee shop that already has nine people “going” on Facebook. Or maybe that is what I tried to convince myself, having a feeling that I knew what was coming.

She started off the next sentence by saying, in a very quiet and empathetic voice, “I noticed that you are very underweight…”

Immediately my heart dropped. I did not want this type of lecture.

Yet, I knew that the inevitable had arrived—I had never been approached by a stranger, asking me if I had anorexia, until now. Because the sound of embarrassment and anger filled my ears, I cannot remember the exact words that followed. What I do remember is that she said something about “knowing what I am going through,” and trying to give me resources. As soon as I found a pause in her speech, I cut her off. I informed her, slightly pissed off, while still being polite, that I did not have an eating disorder. Yet…she continued.

“Oh, well, I’d really encourage you to go to the following site…” then proceeded to spell out a website. Again, I cut her off, saying that I didn’t have anorexia, but have a genetic disorder called lipodystrophy, suggesting that I did not need her website. Perhaps I got the truth through to her, or perhaps she figured I was making excuses for the way I looked. Either way, the conversation finally ended the second time I tried to put a halt to it.

I walked away, escaping down the escalator, and returned to the puzzle section, as a puzzle presented itself in my mind. I found myself pondering an ethical question: should someone speak to another person in this manner, in an attempt to help? Was it OK that this stranger approached me, even if she miscalculated?

What if I was someone with anorexia? A stranger approaching me in a store and giving me a potentially life-saving resource could have changed my life forever. It could have saved me from potential hospital visits, further sicknesses and maybe even death.

But I am not a woman with anorexia. A stranger approaching me in a store and giving me what she thinks is a life-saving resource caused me some emotional harm. It cost me some dignity, security and my sense of privacy in a public space.

Did I appreciate someone approaching me in their attempt to help? Honestly, I was not so sure. So I went home, pondered some more, and I even Googled it: “Should I approach a stranger with anorexia?” The best I could find were some Reddit posts about people observing someone with anorexia in the gym working out vigorously.“There’s a woman with anorexia in my gym; what do I do?” The answers were almost completely: “Nothing.” Some even pointed out that the supposedly “anorexic” individuals could be living with another disease, such as cancer, and can be experiencing weight loss due to treatment. There were even some survivors of eating disorders posting responses, also agreeing that there is not much one can do to help: rather, it is up to the individual themselves and their loved ones to find the road to recovery. Many pointed out that approaching a stranger in this manner could do more harm than help.

I wish that I could go back in time and tell this to the woman in Barnes and Noble, instead of just having stormed off.  She does not know the life I lead, and had no business approaching me in a public space—or any location—like that.

I do believe that people are basically good, and have well-meaning intentions. Most of us look out for one another, feel empathy, and want to help people in need. The difficult part of helping is recognizing when help is not to be granted.

Originally published: April 5, 2019
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