Food for thought and health

There is a good chance that in the time that you are reading this, you are eating. If so, take a look around you. Do you see the girl deliberating in front of the dessert table, wondering whether or not she should take a cookie? Do you see the guy loading up his tray with iceberg lettuce, no dressing, no protein? Do you overhear the two girls taking about their newest plan to go to the gym not once, not twice, but three times a day? Do you see your classmate, looking quite anxious, picking at his food? I do, and I have observed each of these vignettes in the past week alone. Dining hall subculture is a curious phenomenon at Williams and also a disturbing one.

The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that ten million females and one million males in the United States face eating disorders. Applied to the Williams student body, this statistic comes out to around five in every 100 students. This figure is alarming since it does not account for undiagnosed individuals or those who simply struggle with issues related to eating, but who have not yet been formally diagnosed with a psychological disorder.

Although both sexes have potential for developing an eating disorder, women are far more susceptible: a shocking 80 percent of women are dissatisfied with their appearance. As high as this figure seems, it does not surprise me. I try to hit the gym every day. I’ve learned to go, not to lose those 10 pounds so I can fit into my little sister’s jeans, but because it makes me feel energized, relaxed and levelheaded. The problem is that not everyone shares this mindset.

Go to the “Estrogym” at 4 p.m. any day, and you will inevitably be forced to wait for a treadmill, see dozens of female students with glazed and distant facial expressions and overhear conversations about dieting, disappointment with body image, weight gain and the “need” to shed pounds. Most of the time, I hear these comments from healthy, beautiful and fit peers. It is very upsetting, especially to someone who has struggled with an eating disorder in the past.

What makes this most disconcerting is that these types of conversations have become the norm. No one pays a second glance when a friend asks for tips on how to lose three pounds by the weekend, or when a passerby gets only a salad at Whitman’s or when a thin person complains that she or he is “fat.” It is possible that I am hypersensitive to these sorts of comments – or that I have severe issues with eavesdropping – but I observe examples of eating disorder tendencies on a daily basis. Without a doubt this connects to the heavy focus on athleticism and perfectionism that exist on our campus.

This is why it is especially important to be aware of the resources that the College offers. Peer Health runs Call-In/Walk-In, a service held on Sundays through Thursdays, 7 to 10 p.m., where you can pick up pamphlets, talk to a peer or get a referral to a licensed professional. If you are uncomfortable speaking to a psychologist or psychiatrist, or if you have noticed some out-of-character eating habits in a friend, this is a vastly underrated resource. We are also very lucky to have a nutritionist at the Health Center, Maria Cruz. She offers individual consultations and is another amazing resource, whether you have been diagnosed with an eating disorder or simply want to learn how to eat healthily in our dining halls.

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAW) is coming up, starting this Sunday. Active Minds, the Williams chapter of the National Organization for Mental Health Issues Advocacy, is hosting several events to spread awareness about eating disorders and help NEDAW with their themed week, “ – until eating disorders are history.” There will be panel discussions, an information table in Paresky, film screenings and a keynote lecture by Lauren Greenfield, critically acclaimed creator of the 2006 documentary Thin.

We hear time and time again about the escalating prevalence of eating disorders due to unrealistic body types modeled by celebrities and fashion icons. Some common practices at Williams, though, such as daily, frequent trips to the gym, calorie counting and the purported institution of “effortless perfection” add to the triggers and precipitating causes of eating disorders and distorted eating habits among our student body. Take the time, if only for today, to love your body and not obsess over food. Don’t live to eat; eat to live. In the words of the stickers that adorn the “hot sleeves” for coffee cups around campus: “Food gives me – energy, life, fun, rest, peace, satisfaction, mental health, ability to think, healthy teeth and bones, healthy skin and eyesight, immunity, muscles, joy, strength, something to share with a friend.”

Veronica Rabelo ’11 is from Glen Rock, N.J. She lives in Gladden.