This year, I headed off to college, along with millions of students across the United States. For us, this transition marked the beginning of a unique period in our young lives. We are no longer children, but we are not yet adults. And yet, we are faced, daily, with very real, very serious issues, such as those related to food, weight, and body image. While not unique to college, these dilemmas take on an entirely new scope in our years at school. They are fueled by the novelty of living away from home, the stress of making decisions for ourselves, and a culture that values appearance to the point of obsession. It is essential that we address these issues and their causes, as struggles with food and weight can not only harm our performance in school, but also affect us for the rest of our lives.
There are some incredibly disheartening statistics out there about the prevalence of eating issues on college campuses. According to one study, 91% of female college students have used diets to control their weight, and 25% have binged and purged as a form of weight management (anad.org 2013). Additionally, nearly half (43%) of eating disorders develop during the college years, more than during any other single period of life (anad.org 2013). While we may never fully know why the rates of body image issues and related problems are so high in college-aged students, we can look to college structure and culture, both on and off campus, for clues about the major factors in this trend.
One factor that makes college students more likely to struggle with diet and weight is the drastic increase in independence and personal responsibility. For the first time, our activities are not governed by our parents or by a strict high school schedule. Instead, we are free to make many decisions for ourselves, including choices about when and what we eat, as well as how much we exercise. With food available at almost any hour, these choices can become daunting. When combined with the stress of adjusting to a more rigorous academic curriculum, the stage is set for students to fall into unhealthy behaviors, such as using food to cope with stress, or neglecting to eat meals due to an overloaded schedule.
While almost all young adults have to deal with the stresses of growing up and taking on increased responsibility and independence, popular culture in the United States introduces additional pressures for young students. From an early age, we see thin, pretty women and muscular men in magazines, on television, and in movies. The ubiquity of this “perfect” image shapes our perception of beauty, and influences how we view our own bodies. Our toys, especially Barbie dolls and action figures, give us a glimpse of our “ideal” adult selves, and reinforce gender norms by demonstrating what men and women “should” look like. For men, this means a strong, handsome face, well defined muscles, and six-pack abs. For women, it’s a perfectly made up face, large breasts, an impossibly tiny waist, flat stomach, and toothpick legs. As we grow up, we see our role models–actors and actresses, singers, athletes, fashion models–looking like their childhood toys. These images reinforce the gender stereotypes that women can and should look like barbies, and men like Ken dolls or famous athletes.
With a culture so fixated on aesthetic perfection, the next logical step is to alter our bodies to match our perception of what is desirable. This transformation mentality has also become deeply engrained in American culture, with the diet, exercise, and weight loss industry in the United States valued at $60 billion (Adams 2005). For every thin, pretty actress or buff man we see on TV or in magazines, there are several ads for diet programs, gym memberships, and weight loss products telling us how we too can achieve our aesthetic goals. Often, these advertisements conflate thinness and beauty with happiness and success in order to sell their product, leading us to believe that we will be happier if we hit a certain weight or look a certain way. This cultural emphasis on attaining and maintaining unrealistic appearances creates a vicious cycle: we as consumers believe that we need to lose weight and therefore purchase diet and exercise products. Consumer interest causes companies to shift their focus to marketing these products, which contributes to the cultural emphasis on aesthetic beauty over other internal traits. After eighteen plus years of being exposed to media and advertisements that stress perfect physique, college students have internalized the underlying message: it’s important to look good, and acceptable to do whatever it takes to reach that goal.
The body-image obsessed American culture is amplified on college campuses, compounding the pressure on students to conform to aesthetic ideals. The first college myth to affect students is the freshman fifteen. Most students are exposed to this particular college story while still in high school, and vow to avoid the weight gain once they enter university. Our worry about gaining weight causes us to be more susceptible to using diets and other, dangerous methods of controlling how much we weigh. However, this fear is essentially unfounded, as the average weight gain among first year college students is well below the fabled fifteen pounds. While unsubstantiated college legends set the stage for preoccupation with weight, students face additional pressure from peers to maintain a certain appearance. Indirectly, and often unknowingly, students exert this pressure through negative comments about food and weight, or by treating food as a reward for exercise. Remarks such as “I shouldn’t be eating this,” “I’m going to get so fat,” or “I earned this because I went to the gym” further the mentality that weight management should be our primary concern, above fueling our bodies or indulging in foods we enjoy. The danger of such seemingly banal fragments of conversation is that they are ubiquitous to the point of being unavoidable. In my own time at college, I have had very few meals devoid of negative comments concerning food consumption and weight gain. When we hear these statements over and over again, we begin to internalize them, believe them, and repeat them ourselves. We spread the very thoughts and stereotypes we try so hard to avoid.
Our cultural obsession with food and body image is truly troubling. Far from promoting a healthy weight and good self esteem, this society-wide infatuation with being thin puts students at risk for a host of mental and physical health issues. In the short term, preoccupation with appearance, upcoming meals, and exercise regimens can inhibit students’ ability to concentrate in school. Additionally, students who under-eat in order to lose weight lack the energy necessary to pay attention in class, causing their academics to suffer. In extreme cases, students with full-blown eating disorders may be completely removed from school in order to be treated, halting their academic progress. In the long run, poor body image and unhealthy attitudes surrounding food and exercise can negatively impact the rest of a student’s life. Dieting patterns, compulsive overexercise, or subclinical disordered eating can all affect our ability to actively participate in relationships and lead a full and meaningful life. In addition, these issues can cause physical symptoms, such as overuse injuries from exercise, increased levels of stress hormones in the body, and disruption of vital bodily functions due to malnutrition. Eventually, that “little” diet could turn into a much bigger problem, one that could linger for years to come.
It is imperative that we understand the ways in which American and college culture affect our body image, diet, and exercise, both during our years in school and after we leave. The problems such an image obsessed culture create are too numerous and dangerous to ignore, especially with the health of millions of people on the line. When we are aware of the forces in play, we are empowered to change the underlying paradigm, and pave the way for a healthier generation of students.