“I like to eat.” At home this would be a ridiculous statement. Of course, I do! Saying “I like to eat” would be like saying “I like to breathe,” or “I like to sleep” or “I like to engage in other activities that support my basic living needs.” At Williams College, though, “I like to eat” isn’t as self-evident.
The College puts a lot of effort into providing its students with healthy food, but it doesn’t put nearly as much effort into helping its students create an equally healthy relationship with that food. It is difficult to ignore the fact that eating disorders are prevalent on campus. Is it the College’s fault? Not entirely. According to the American College Health Association, a variety of cultural, mental and biological factors can play a part in the development of eating disorders. Nonetheless, it remains that the College can do much more to educate its students about various eating disorders and their consequences.
It’s easy to see how our College culture fosters unhealthy relationships with food and exercise. Here’s the recipe: Take 2000 students – 50 percent of them are athletes, 100 percent, perfectionists – and place them in the middle of nowhere, removing their frame of reference for the average American body type. In the Purple Valley, the “love your body the way it is” mantra doesn’t work. Everyone is constantly working to stay in shape, and when fitness goals become cover-ups for unhealthy behaviors, something needs to be done.
A pamphlet from the Health Center lists 16 yes-or-no questions to help students determine whether or not they have an eating disorder. Taken together, these items obviously depict unhealthy behavior; individually, they depict real pressures many students at the College face. The statements include: “I constantly think about eating, weight and body size,” “I am preoccupied with having fat on my body,” “I think about burning calories when I exercise, exercise too much or get very rigid about my exercise plan.”
Even I occasionally agree with these statements. However, whether the pressures might feel internal or external, I can’t help but notice that I agree with the statements more strongly when I’m at Williams than when I’m at home. Changing this culture – the culture of agreeing with those statements – is an important battle, but the necessary first step is acknowledging its existence. Furthermore, “eating disorder” doesn’t have to mean diagnosed anorexia or bulimia. The American College Heath Association has another category, “eating disorder not otherwise specified” (EDNO), to describe people who might exhibit anorexic tendencies without actually being underweight, or who might binge eat without the frequency of a diagnosed bulimic. EDNOs, while not immediately life-threatening, can lead to more serious conditions in the future.
It is for this reason that we need better education, now. Such education could come in the form of a First Days event, a required PE class or more accessible workshops. Junior Advisors aren’t the only ones who need training about eating disorders. Making it through freshman year doesn’t mean students are immune to unhealthy behaviors. Once they leave the entry, students and their friends are responsible for looking out for each other, so they need the tools to do that. Additionally, the College needs to stress that its other resources, like the nutritionist and other Health Center services, aren’t just for athletes. In fact, it is often non-athletes, who do not have a team and a coach to monitor their behavior, who need these resources the most.
The bottom line is that there shouldn’t be a gray area between healthy and unhealthy behaviors. If you feel the need to hide your eating and exercising from your friends, your behaviors are probably unhealthy. If you feel like you need to compare your eating and exercising to your friends’, your behaviors are probably unhealthy, too. It is true that there are healthy behaviors, like eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. Students need to know about healthy behaviors, too. Skipping a meal or setting a thousand-calorie goal at the gym can start off as honest attempts to lose a few pounds that develop into seriously detrimental habits. Students who would like to get in shape must thus be provided with other, healthier strategies.
I like to eat, but I wish I didn’t have to say so. Maybe one day, students at the College won’t have to say that for it to be known. Until then, we need to acknowledge the problem that confronts us every time we enter the estrogym or the dining hall and take some serious steps to ensure that it doesn’t get any worse.