Towle: Keystone Isn't a Meal

Eating disorders pose a potential threat to Dartmouth's campus.

by Sydney Towle | 10/22/19 2:05am

“You have an eating disorder.” The words lingered in the air with exceptional weight, yet my mind refused to let them sink in. My eyes floated around the small examination room, desperately trying to distract myself from my diagnosis.

Growing up, I never could have imagined that I would develop such a strained relationship with food. Prior to attending Dartmouth, I had always maintained a healthy association with food, even gaining the reputation as a “carbatarian” because of my affinity for bread and pasta. Of course I had noticed my once-snug skinny jeans now hanging loosely from my waist, but I had never attributed my weight loss to an actual disorder. 

It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly why my relationship with food has gone so far downhill. Could it be due to academic stress or the need to fit in, or maybe a little of both? I can’t say for sure, but I do know this: I am not alone. I have heard both friends and strangers alike degrade their bodies and compare themselves to other students on campus and/or social media influencers. While this is a common practice, it is heightened at Dartmouth due to a pressure for perfectionism, a culture built on alcohol and an emphasis on athletics. 

Studies have found that pre-developed ideals of perfectionism and concern about mistakes are much more common in people with eating disorders than not. To get into a high-caliber school like Dartmouth, students have to work much harder in high school to achieve a certain degree of excellence, and one could argue that many students here are perfection-obsessed as a result. According to another study of female college students, it was found that “self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism were found to play the greatest roles” in disordered eating habits. Perfectionists tend to fixate on numbers as a method of control, such as GPA, test scores and numbers on the scale. By maintaining too tight of a grip on these numbers, it is easy for people with perfectionist mindsets to develop a negative, control-obsessed relationship with food. 

In addition to being built on perfectionism, Dartmouth’s culture also includes heavy drinking. The mentality seems to be that skipping meals balances the surplus of calories consumed through alcohol consumption and late-night snacking at Collis. This trend seems to also stem from the actions of one’s friends. In college, students have more responsibility over their own eating habits. A student’s meal schedule is, therefore, often determined by the schedules of their friends. If a student’s friends are skipping meals, some will be discourgaged from eating by themselves. 

While it may seem like replacing meals with alcohol makes sense from an overall caloric intake point of view, the health implications say otherwise. Eating disorders are the deadliest of mental illnesses, with at least one person dying every 62 minutes due to resultant health implications and malnutrition. Needless to say, the human body needs a variety of nutrients to function properly and effectively. United States Department of Agriculture guidelines suggest each person have at least two servings of fruits and three servings of vegetables each day. In a college environment, students are already less likely to intake the proper amount of nutrients due to “shortage of time, convenience, cost, taste, health, physical and social environment, and weight control,” according to the USDA.  If a student is skipping meals, they are then furthur reducing an already nutritiously-sparse diet and could easily become malnourished. Restricting ourselves cannot be brushed off as a simple “dieting” technique or something of that ilk. Our bodies need fuel to survive and cannot run off of Keystone alone.

Dartmouth students are especially vulnerable to eating disorders because of the prominence of athletics on campus that create an added social pressure to exercise that may spiral into a hyper-focus on calories.  Nearly 25 percent of Dartmouth students participate in intercollegiate athletics across 35 intercollegiate varsity sports and 35 club sports. Including intramural sports, three-quarters of undergraduates participate in some form of athletics.  Comparing these statistics to the NCAA, the disparities are apparent: on average, a reported four percent of a DI college’s student body participates in sports and there are roughly 19 sports teams at these schools. Given the prevalence of sports on our campus, it is no surprise that those students who don’t participate in an organized sport may feel a social pressure to hit the gym more often. This pressure, combined with a lower food intake, can quickly escalate into an unhealthy relationship with food.

By recognizing signs of mental health issues early on, eating disorders can be prevented from taking deadly turns. If a friend is regularly skipping meals, chooses foods based solely on calories or has an obsessive relationship with the gym, checking in with them should be a priority. It is essential that we shift away from a campus culture of obsessive athleticism and perfection, toward a more positive environment that embraces all types of students. Shifting this culture will allow us to create a space curated not by competition, but by compassion —  which we could all use a bit more of.