Last week, the College participated in National Eating Disorder Awareness (NEDA) week. Student groups and the administration reminded the College that we, like every community, are imperfect. NEDA week is not the only time in which we should recognize this reality, but nonetheless it is a critical opportunity for the College to reflect on the availability of resources for coping with body issues, as well as unhealthy ways of relating to body image that exist within our campus culture.
Eating disorders and disordered eating are particularly difficult to confront in a collegiate environment because it is unclear to many what the proper form of intervention is. Individuals struggling with these issues often feel ashamed or embarrassed, making it particularly difficult for them to seek treatment. Though some students may be concerned about a peer, few know how to respond, and even fewer know how to do so effectively. While students at the College are relatively uncompetitive in terms of grades, we as a community engage in constant comparison about body types and attitudes toward food. With a campus culture that supports frequent trips to the gym, it is difficult for the student body to accept a variety of body types, exercise goals and eating habits, furthering a sense that individuals must do whatever it takes to fit it. We can and must do better going forward both in interpersonal interactions as members of a community and as an institution with considerable resources at its disposal.
During NEDA week, the College should have taken the opportunity to further discuss the numerous resources that our student body is lucky to have at its disposal. To name just a few, the Health Center and Psychological Counseling Services are available for consultations with students who struggle with disordered eating or are concerned about how to approach a friend who may have a problem. Peer Health offers information online and through its office in Paresky every Sunday through Thursday, but these resources are still underutilized. Additionally, coaches, professors and peers are all possible allies. The week’s events should have helped connect the Health Center and Peer Health in particular with the student body at large to destigmatize seeking treatment and advice.
Unfortunately, this year’s NEDA week was underwhelming, with little student attendance or awareness. This under-served the College, as the exact problem with eating disorders and disordered eating is that those who are most in need of assistance do not acknowledge it. Publicity and programming are critical for an important week like this to succeed.
Though NEDA week occurs just once a year, the issues surrounding eating disorders and disordered eating do not end once the week concludes. This advocacy week should serve as a catalyst for future awareness and more open discussion. Most importantly, we as students and peers must make sure that individuals are empowered to act. A lot of what influences our culture here is what we say. We encourage the student body to think realistically about individual health and rise against the pressure to be self-critical where body image and food are concerned, even if this behavior is the current norm. Individuals should not feel inherently guilty for eating a particular item and, even when used in a joking fashion, we must be aware that our words have consequences. Feeling healthy and feeling energetic should be primary goals, not shedding pounds to fit a smaller size. This culture of comparison in body types and eating habits is damaging to our community; we need to respect each individual’s decisions and support our community members in carving out their own healthy lifestyles.
One way that we can work to change this campus culture is through increased education. Though the College has a nutritionist on staff, few students know how to access her expertise. Increasing the visibility of this support system is one step towards addressing the issue of disordered eating and also in helping students to navigate a healthy relationship with food. As a first step, perhaps the nutritionist could host an on-campus dinner event with students to show them how to make smart, healthy eating choices in dining halls.
Disordered eating in particular is best addressed through open discourse about the culture of eating. The College is open to suggestions: Talk to Dining Services, reach out to the nutritionist, ask for more organic food. Those in charge of making these decisions are willing to listen to new ideas. Issues around eating, exercise and body image are prominent at the College, and they do not end with graduation. Taking a proactive stance on these concerns now will serve students well in the future as well as developing a healthy College community. Through concerted dialogue, further communication and an increased visibility of resources, we can begin to tackle the difficult issues of disordered eating and eating disorders, and learn to be healthier along the way.