Between five percent and 20 percent of female college students have eating disorders. Seventy eight percent of college women have binged. About eight percent say they have made themselves throw up in an attempt to control their weight. About one in 100 college women is anorexic. At the same time, the rate of obesity is rising rapidly among college students.
When it comes to food, college campuses are like distorted mirrors of larger American culture.
What's going on? Clearly, our relationship with food is broken.
When it comes to food, college campuses are like distorted mirrors of larger American culture. Unhealthy relationships with food plague Americans of all ages — doctors say that anorexia is increasing rapidly among women in their 30s, and that America's children are experiencing an epidemic of obesity. On college campuses, these problems are even more exaggerated.
Where the Problems Start
Part of the problem resides in the cafeteria. I have just moved to a new university, and I walked into the cafeteria last week and was overwhelmed: there was Chinese food, hamburgers, a sushi bar … a local Indian restaurant had even set up shop in the school cafeteria and was serving up spicy vindaloo. A refrigerated case held soda and bottles of raspberry juice and those scrumptious Starbucks Frappuccinos. There was a salad bar, yes, but it seemed pitiful and lame compared to all the other delights calling to me. And best of all, I didn't have to pay for it — or, at least I felt like I didn't have to pay for it. I'd put a bunch of money in my university account at the start of term, so I could just swipe my ID card, and, poof, the food was mine. I went for the vindaloo.
It won't take too many visits to the cafeteria before I've gained some weight (the Freshman 15 doesn't just apply to freshmen) — which means it also won't take too many visits to the cafeteria for me to feel lousy, or frantic, or determined to try some crazy diet.
"Why do we eat? For nourishment, of course. But also for enjoyment. And sometimes to make ourselves feel better."
Part of the problem lies, then, in the messages I've been absorbing since the moment I popped out of the womb. Will the world come to an end if I gain five pounds? No. But I feel like it will come to an end. I tell myself over and over that the magazine covers and super-skinny super-models are all spouting lies, but even though I can chant the feminist critiques of the beauty industry — in fact, even though I believe those critiques — other messages chant even louder. I'll never get anywhere in the world if I'm not the prettiest girl in the class and I must be a pathetic slob if I can't discipline myself enough to withstand those tasty treats.
Why Dealing with Food is Suddenly Much Harder Now that You're on Your Own
The challenges of eating well at college, then, are legion. For starters, it's suddenly all up to you. No parents purchasing fruit that you might scoop up off the kitchen counter. And definitely no parents sitting down with you at dinner to make sure you eat your veggies. On the other hand, there's no one to check in and see if you're getting enough to eat, period.
A college classmate of mine was hospitalized around Christmas of our freshman year because she'd dropped more than 30 pounds — by slicing her diet down to 400 calories a day (that's three-fourths cup of cheerios, a three-ounce roasted chicken breast, an apple, and about five dates). No one seemed to notice how little Lisa was eating — or, if anyone noticed, they didn't know how to broach the subject with her. One of my hallmates later said she had been worried, but she hadn't wanted to seem nosy.
Also, food is, in psychoanalytic lingo, over determined. That's a fancy way of saying that food is a symbol that is tied up with lots of different layers of reality. Why do we eat? For nourishment, of course. But also for enjoyment. And sometimes to make ourselves feel better. And sometimes to take revenge on parents who withheld love and sustenance from us. And sometimes because, though we're not hungry at all, the folks around us are eating and we want to join in. And on and on … food has lots of meanings in our life. So navigating the cafeteria is complicated because we may have to do some serious talking, thinking, and praying to figure out why we do — or don't — eat.
Not only did God create your body, but He actually took on a human body and became an embodied person. How's that for a radical reminder that bodies are very beloved, and very dear to our God?
Our surrounding culture tells us that our bodies aren't good enough. We need to lose weight, or put on make-up, or lock ourselves in the gym, or buy a push-up bra … and then, then we'll be closer to good enough. Of course, the voices that urge these products and solutions on us are hardly disinterested. Usually they are selling something — mascara, dieting pills, cellulite reduction cream — that they hope we'll buy. But even when we don't buy their products, we all too often buy the lies they're spewing.
For that body that you revile — the one you're trying to diet away, or enhance with a Wonder Bra — was created by God, and God called it good. If you're like me you can glory in God's good creation when you see a sunrise, or a newborn, or a flower — but not when you look in the mirror. And yet: not only did God create your body, but He actually took on a human body and became an embodied person. How's that for a radical reminder that bodies are very beloved, and very dear to our God?
Sometimes, I tally up all the hours I've spent worrying about weight. It's not a fun exercise. It is actually an exercise in repentance because those hours — thousands of hours — spent freaking out about my waste-line could have instead been spent promoting the Kingdom.
So, What Can We Do?
Unless you are super-spiritually-evolved, you will probably be grappling with the hard, knotty issues of body image — the basic question of how to be a body well — for the rest of your life. But you're going to be facing unique challenges having to do with food and bodies now. Here are a few ideas for how you can make the journey just a little bit smoother:
Small Groups: I bet there's a female leader of a Christian group on your campus who would be just thrilled to start a discussion group about eating and body image.
Getting Help: If you suspect that you may be slipping from dieting to an eating disorder, please go to student health services and ask to talk to someone — a nurse, doctor, or counselor, preferably a woman. Your college will have a staff specially trained to help you through an eating disorder.
Confrontation: If you have a friend whose interactions with food worry you, bring it up with her, lovingly. (Maybe even show her this article!) And don't hesitate to talk to someone else — your RA, or someone in health services — if she dismisses your concern. (After all, it's pretty unlikely that your friend will break down on the spot and say You're so right — I am bulimic and I want help! She's more likely to reassure you and accuse you of overreacting.)
Prayer: God does not want us to be in bondage to cultural messages about thinness. He wants us to steward our bodies, yes, and take care of them, through nutritious eating and exercise, but He doesn't want us to obsess. And if we bring those obsessions to Him in prayer, He will meet us.