Athletic pressure affects self-image

| 11/17/10 11:00pm

*Editor's Note: This is the second part in a three-part series investigating eating disorders at the College.**##

A 2009 study by the American College Health Association found that almost one in three college students can be classified as "either obese or overweight." But at prestigious academic institutions like Dartmouth, these trends do not hold true.

Instead, Dartmouth students encouraged by an athletic culture that emphasizes fitness and measured eating often eat too little, exercise too much and push themselves toward dangerous illness, several students and counselors told The Dartmouth.

"The percentage of fit people I see here is much greater than the number I saw in my high school," a male member of the Class of 2014 said. "In fact, it's rare to see someone who is not in shape."

The trend extends to Dartmouth's peer institutions. Princeton Health Services notes on its website, for example, that students at Princeton are on the whole more thin than rest of the population.

The drive to be fit can have health consequences as students become too thin, instead of healthily fit. While researchers estimate that 1 to 2 percent of people nationwide are affected by eating disorders, up to 30 percent of college students struggle with eating disorders and disordered eating, according to Princeton Health Services.

The implications of such eating disorders can be drastic, as the most severe cases result in irreversible bodily damage or even death. Incidents of less serious disordered eating are even more prevalent at Dartmouth.


Varsity athletes are particularly susceptible to eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. Dartmouth has a higher percentage of students participating in varsity sports than other Division I schools, according to Dan Parish, director of admissions recruitment and communication at the College.

"Dartmouth is relatively small for a Division I institution," he said. "But it also has one of the broadest ranges of athletic offerings of any institution. To offer 34 Division I sports at a setting that's the smallest of Division I is quite impressive."

Parish noted that between 17 and 18 percent of each incoming class consists of recruited student athletes. A smaller number of students walk on to a varsity sport each year, making overall varsity athletic participation 20 percent, according Dartmouth's website.

Athletic competition can cause "severe" physical and psychological stress, according to NEDA's website.

"When the pressures of athletic competition are added to an existing cultural emphasis on thinness, the risks increase for athletes to develop disordered eating," the website reads.

Although both male and female athletes are at risk, female athletes are more prone to eating disorders, according to the website. More than one-third of female athletes reported symptoms putting them at risk for anorexia nervosa, according to NEDA's study of Division I athletes.

Christina Wielgus, the head coach of the women's basketball team, said she has noticed some extreme effects of body image issues among members of the varsity women's basketball team.

"We've definitely had to deal with some eating disorders over the years, and I think that goes along with the kind of personalities who compete in varsity athletics at Ivy League schools," Wielgus said.

While body image is an issue in all sports, players of certain sports are more affected than others, said Anne Hudak, the assistant athletic director for student enhancement at Dartmouth.

"In general, making comparisons is basically common sense," Hudak said. "If a team requires an individual to be lighter to compete in a sport, body image would obviously come up more often. There are clearly going to be differences between a lightweight rower and a football player."

But body image issues pose problems for athletes off the playing field as well. Maintaining a balance between a feminine body type and having the physical qualities to be a successful athlete can be difficult, Sandi Caalim '13, a women's rugby player, said.

"When we really started lifting weights, a lot of girls on the team were worried about lifting too much and looking unwomanly," she said. "Our team is pretty feminine, so the weight lifting definitely made some of us uncomfortable."

Annie Villanueva '12, a varsity volleyball player, said she has dealt with similar problems.

"I'm not sure my body would necessarily be as bulky as it is if I just exercised on my own and not with the team," she said. "It's hard. In some ways that's just the sacrifice I've decided to make four years of my life being big and muscular but still, it definitely bothers me at times."

Villanueva is a member of The Dartmouth Staff.

In a survey conducted by the College's Eating Disorder Peer Advisor program, based on a convenience sample of Dartmouth students, 79 percent of students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that they compare their bodies to those of other students. Thirteen percent of those surveyed were varsity athletes.OVER-EXERCISING

In addition to the large number of varsity athletes at Dartmouth, other students participate in either club or intramural sports. Including students involved in the College's 28 club teams and numerous intramural offerings, over 75 percent of the student body is involved in athletics at Dartmouth, according to the admissions office's website.

Many students, including Nik Medrano '14, said that this intense athletic presence at Dartmouth is one of the primary causes of body image issues on campus.

"There are so many people who are fit here that many people tend to feel less in shape than they actually are because everyone around them is in such good shape," Medrano said. "For instance, I work out a lot but don't feel like I'm in that good of shape because of [the fitness of] everyone around me."

Meera Krishna '11, a psychology major who is writing her thesis on eating disorders at Dartmouth, said she believes that Dartmouth's culture of fitness and athleticism causes women in particular to focus too much on their physical appearance.

"There's definitely a lot of pressure to exercise often and be in shape here," she said. "Most people here are very fit, and that's very unusual. It doesn't help that Dartmouth is a super outdoorsy, active school, so you feel a lot of pressure to be involved in that realm."

Of the students surveyed by EDPA, 67 percent reported using exercise or regulating food in order to control their body size.

Some Dartmouth students exercise far beyond what is necessary to remain healthy, said Hugh Mellert, the director of both the Fitness and Lifestyle Improvement Program and the Fitness Center.

"Occasionally, we have students who come to the fitness center who are observed to be chronic exercisers," he said. "They have very low muscle mass and a very thin bony appearance. These students come in and work out for sometimes hours at a time. They will spend 30 minutes on the elliptical machine, 30 minutes on the treadmill and then 30 minutes on the bike. It becomes obvious after a certain point that these people are chronic exercisers and have a serious issue going on."

This is not a common trend, but is one that merits attention, Mellert said. He added that most over-exercising he witnesses occurs with non-varsity and club athletes, since he oversees the general-use facility.

But varsity and club athletes can become chronic exercisers too. Caalim said that she struggled with exercise bulimia, or extreme over-exercising, and disordered eating throughout high school and into college.

"Coming to college, I was constantly thinking about how I could burn off food," she said. "I over-trained. I worked out too much, and I injured myself because of it."


Many colleges offer an "all-you-can-eat" dining plan, in which students swipe their identification cards and can eat as much as they wish. Dartmouth, however, uses an a la carte system, in which each item on the menu has a specific monetary value and students pay per item.

Many students said that they eat less as a result of this system.

"Whenever I can pay to eat at an all-you-can-eat-buffet, which is essentially the meal plans of other schools, I honestly eat all that I can literally, until I feel sick," Salman Rajput '14 said. "Having each food item cost a certain amount is awesome, because it makes me less prone to binge-eating for the two or three precious intervals where I can eat."

Only a few students interviewed by The Dartmouth indicated that they thought they would eat the same amount of food as they would at a college with an all-you-can-eat buffet, and none said that they eat more as a result of the a la carte system.

Beyond the specifics of the a la carte system, many students said that the college environment has an effect on their eating habits.

Neelima Panth '14 said that she is much more conscious about her eating habits at Dartmouth than she was at home.

"At Dartmouth, I'm surrounded by people who are thinking about their health," she said. "At home, I only had one meal per day with my friends, and now I have every meal with my friends. I'm more conscious of what I eat here because I'm influenced by my friends."


As a result of the racial, geographic, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity on campus, differences in opinion regarding what constitutes the ideal body make body image issues on campus all the more complicated.

Kari Jo Grant, coordinator of Health Education Programs at Dartmouth, explained that students' backgrounds contribute to the way they approach body image issues.

"The importance of food in your culture and relationships between your family members, among others, are important factors that influence what one considers attractive," she said.

Students from different parts of the country and the world have different conceptions of physical health and attractiveness.

"I did not know one person with an eating disorder in my 800-person high school class," Hannah Decker '13, a student from Illinois, said. "The standard of what constitutes being attractive isn't as focused on weight where I'm from, but is more on health. I've noticed since coming to Dartmouth that, on the East coast, the standards of attractiveness are often based on a weight that's unhealthy."

As a part of "Fat Talk' Free Week", Delta Delta Delta sorority hosted a discussion on Wednesday about body image on campus.

Individuals at the forum talked about their varying conceptions of what it means to be attractive. Some female students who had attended single-sex schools noted that conceptions of beauty focused on being thin. Female students with backgrounds in dance tended to agree, pointing out that in the dancing world, it is important to be thin.

Others, however, said that they were from places where being curvaceous was more attractive than being thin. One student explained that, when she goes home during breaks from school, her family criticizes her for being too thin.

Those present reached a consensus that conceptions of the "ideal" body at Dartmouth tend to emphasize thinness and physical fitness.