Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Friends don't let friends starve themselves

By Meg Parker

When I walk around Santa Clara University, so many of the young women I see look like they need to be hooked up to a feeding tube. My fellow students make me feel fat, even though I'm a size 4.

I know the women on my campus are not unusual. Researchers estimate that 5 -10 million girls and women are struggling with eating disorders. And men are not immune. One million boys and men share the problem.

I've been frustrated about this issue for a long time, but it wasn't until some of my own friends developed eating disorders that I realized there were ethical aspects to it.

First, I saw how much their behavior was influencing everyone else. Suddenly, it was imperative to count calories and eat cottage cheese. Even when we watched TV together, all of our comments seemed to be about how skinny-and great-the actors looked.

Finally, I got tired of how my friends' preoccupation with thinness was changing the way I saw my body and myself. When I understood how eating disorders were affecting my community, I decided to take action. I joined SCU's task force to develop a "disordered eating protocol," which provides resources for students with eating disorders and for others who want to help. I also created a forum for students to educate themselves about how to help their friends. And I wrote this article.

But I realize that these activities are all a sort of stalling tactic to avoid the other ethical issue that I need to consider: What does it really mean to be a friend to someone with an eating disorder?

Aristotle has his own criteria for friendship: Each wishes the good of the friend for the sake of the friend. In my view, then, it is our moral responsibility to confront our friends when they're engaged in behavior that is so obviously destructive of their own well-being.

Clearly, it would be in my friends' best interest if I intervened. I might be able to do what Paul J. Wadell, author of "Friendship and the Moral Life," proposes when he writes, "A friend is like a mirror. We can consider ourselves directly, but often we see ourselves better through one who is like us, for then we see ourselves reflected in one who is a 'mirror image' of our goodness."

But, this is much more difficult than it sounds. What happens if my friends don't want me to "mirror" them in this way? What if bringing up the problem destroys the relationships and disrupts the dynamic of the community?

Again, Aristotle offers some guidance. He proposes that truth should be valued more highly than friendship. I agree, but, to be honest, I haven't been able to act on that yet.

I think I still have to fully accept that there are limits to friendship. I have to acknowledge that the truth I have to tell my friends may not solve their problems. We can try to influence those we call buddies, but, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, "You cannot force someone to seek help, change their habits, or adjust their attitudes. You will make important progress in honestly sharing your concerns, providing support, and knowing where to go for more information."

Ultimately, we all have the power to make decisions for ourselves. Our job is to remind the people we care about that they have this power. It may spark the idea that they can change their lives. Maybe that's what I'll tell my friends.

Meg Parker is a senior at Santa Clara University and a Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on March 9, 2003.

We invite you to respond to the issues raised in this article at www.scu.edu/speakingofethics.

Questions:
  1. The article addresses the responsibility of friends. Would that responsibility be different if the person with the suspected eating disorder were a daughter's friend? a student? an acquaintance?

  2. It may be hard to confront a friend directly about eating disorders. But are there circumstances in which it would be your responsibility to bring the problem to the attention of parents or other authorities?


New Materials

Center News