By: Beth Hales
Published February 21, 2022
When discussing and providing care to those with eating disorders, we tend to focus on the experiences of the culturally dominant group. This creates an exclusive perception of who experiences EDs, and silences the voices of those on this cultural periphery. Oftentimes when sharing narratives about eating disorders and illness in general, one story is amplified over others, which in this case is the narrative that only cis, white, non-disabled, females are affected, creating limited connection and representation for those who fall outside of this category. To learn more about (re)defining this narrative, and the ways in which we can provide a community support system for those in recovery, I met with Cody Esterle, the creator of the non-profit organization Safely Connected, The Eating Disorder Centre. The Centre commits to supporting and educating youth by redefining eating disorders and minimizing the isolation of individuals suffering from eating disorders on post-secondary campuses.
I wanted to look at the landscape of accessibility, diversity, and accommodation in post-secondary education, and what it means to be safely connected to a community that is supportive and inclusive. Cody explained that in the university context, there are a lot of issues that underlie eating disorders, such as stress, lack of control, need for perfection, and isolation. These are often exacerbated by our academic, social, and environmental landscapes. He expanded by highlighting that this creates a sense of unsafety and disconnection and limits conversations to one specific stereotype.
When asked what was needed to rectify this issue, he explained that it is not just social context that triggers eating disorders, but a higher need to cope with trauma, “A lot of spaces do not consider this nor create services that cater to marginalized communities, and when they do, institutions often treat them as exceptions to the status quo”. He believes that we need to break down stereotypes by creating safe spaces where people can be seen beyond the societal and institutional boxes they may be placed into.
“How can this be done?” I asked, to which he replied, “Professional services need to fundamentally change, adopting a harm reductive and holistic approach to healing. In addition, we need peer led spaces that help folks process underlying trauma by meeting people where they are at.” Indeed, it is the case that most systems within the medical field are goal-oriented towards restoring one’s physical body weight, as they lack the resources to provide a deeper form of healing. Even accessing basic level care is limited by institutional requirements such as reaching a certain BMI level. Ironically, this is what often limits individuals from seeking care, as they are scared they are not “sick enough” to warrant treatment. Cody wants to step away from these baseline, calculated ways of treatment and provide a safe, inclusive, and intersectional environment that, “Caters the space to the user and gives them agency over their own body and narrative”.
Cody is the general coordinator for the student-run Eating Disorder Resource and Support Centre at McGill University, (EDRSC) and was one of the original creators after McGill cut the funding for their eating disorder program. The concept that would later become Safely Connected originated from Cody’s work at the EDRSC. I wanted to see how he came to create Safely Connected, and why he felt it to be an important service to have on university campuses. When asked this, he explained to me that before the creation of the Eating Disorder Resource Support Center, he was working as VP Student Life at the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and entered the role wanting to change the system for students. His main goal was to bridge the gap between working up the strength to reach out for help and actually being able to access mental health services. When working for SSMU, he began to notice a pattern. Other campuses throughout Canada had the same problem of connecting students to resources and treatment, and within those campuses, there were thousands of students struggling with disordered eating, just as he had.
And what started it all was a simple talk at a local cafe between two friends, “So, you had mentioned this one talk you had years before the creation of the Centre that had set off a chain reaction in your brain, could you elaborate more on that?” I asked. He swallowed and took a deep breath:
It was with a close friend, and although we knew each other well, we had never talked about eating disorders before in any way. I remember sitting there and having stressors about food in that space. I remember feeling the distant isolation these stressors and thoughts brought me. I knew that my relationship with food was hurting. And, I don’t remember the exact words, but my friend described exactly how I was feeling at that moment. It made me feel connected through these feelings for the first time. It made me feel like I was in a space where I could just be. The experience showed me that it could get better and changed the way in which I thought about and experienced ED behaviors.Cody Esterle
This was the moment Cody realized the power of talking. For him, this friend became someone that verbalized what was going on in his head when he couldn’t quite make sense of it, and provided both a sense of agency over his own mind, but also a larger feeling of connection. Ever since then, the idea of creating an organization like Safely Connected has always been the route he knew he had to take.
I had now seen the personal experience that motivated Cody to create a service for himself and his community that was so desperately needed, especially in the university context. I asked him why a sense of community is so important in ED recovery, and he responded explaining that triggering information is so ingrained in our society. Everywhere we look there is glorification around weight loss and a focus on food choices and consumption. It is almost everywhere in our lives, so that is why it is crucial to have a community that is free from these narratives, especially for marginalized communities. For example, there is a huge sense of disconnect with your own body for some trans folks. Our body is the first thing medical professionals use to fit us into a category, for many trans folks, this can lead to intense dysphoria, erasure, and discrimination, espeically in accessing ED care.
I asked him the role Safely Connected will play in ensuring this inclusive environment on campuses. He responded that, “Not only is it important for people to belong to a community that is understanding and intersectional, but they need one that allows for connection. We need spaces that do not challenge or question our identity, our relationship with our body, and that acknowledge and address the cisnormative binary that excludes trans and gender non-conforming folks. This will give folks control and agency and see recovery as something that is possible”. Harm reductive frameworks and care are essential for marginalized communities, which is why Safely Connected has developed an anti-ableist, anti-racist and anti-colonialist, fat- and body-positive, queer- and trans-positive, and pro-feminist mandate at the forefront of their work. The last thing I wanted to ask Cody about was how he envisioned the two organizations coexisting on campus. He expressed that because the Eating Disorder Resource Support Center is the first chapter of the organization, it will create a dynamic where they can learn from each other. As he played an active role in the development of both organizations, he anticipates that the two can assist each other in making the EDRSC an ideal “model” for how things can go for other universities as things evolve. He anticipates that the development of Safely Connected, the Eating Disorder Centre will allow the McGill chapter to expand its reach and make more connections and contacts while remaining an independent entity.