In college, there’s an overwhelming pressure to be “healthy.”
In high school, a lot of my friends got caught up in the diet culture, constantly critiquing the size of their thighs and the fat in their Frappes. I have to admit, I drank the Kool-Aid — or in this case, the water and the green tea.
However, I was hopeful that here things would be different. With a huge mass of intelligent, motivated, energetic young people, surely the conversations would turn to topics that were worthier of our brain cells, like immigration rights or the future of student loans. Instead it was like stepping into that scene in Mean Girls where Karen, Gretchen and Regina rip apart their (non-existent) flaws. Almost every woman I know talks constantly about physical health: both her own and others. It’s the non-stop campus narrative.
Unsurprisingly, this intense focus on food, calories and weight manifests itself physically. A majority of the female students on campus wear work-out clothes exclusively, which A) shows off their toned, fit bodies and B) lets them run literally straight from class to the gym.
Oh, and the gym? It’s the most popular place on campus, beating out the library, the student union and the dining halls combined. It’s open from 6 a.m. to midnight and is packed full of exercisers for about that long. There’s indirect competition over how hard you work out and how long you go; I was sitting with a group of my friends when one said, “You’re supposed to do 30 minutes of cardio a day to maintain your weight.”
Another girl laughed and said, “Well, I go on the elliptical for an hour, so I better lose this belly.” (She then proceeded to pat her six-pack.) The last girl, idly examining her nail-beds, informed us she spent two hours a day on the machines. Ding-ding-ding, we have a winner.
These girls are not shallow or unintelligent — they’re my friends! They’re wonderful, interesting people! But far from being immune to the obsession, they perpetuate it.
Nor do I want to suggest this is primarily a girl thing. While most women want to “slim down,” guys push themselves to “bulk up.” There’s an unspoken suggestion that if you’re not lifting weights and downing protein powder like it’s life-blood, you’re not masculine enough.
Ironically, this whole “health thing” is the opposite of healthy. The rate of eating disorders is high on my campus, and I’m willing to guess it’s actually much higher than documented. After all, it’s hard to draw the line between disordered and normal when the norm is disordered.
I have a solution, but it requires collective action. We need to transform the dialogue. Next time you’re having a conversation with someone and that’s where the conversation goes, talk about something else. There are more important numbers than the number of calories in a cupcake — like the number of countries on your travel bucket list or the number of books you’ve read that have changed your life. There are more important goals than losing three pounds — like learning a new skill or doing something nice for a friend. There are more important concerns than what the most effective workout is — like how to fix the campus sexual assault policies or the global carbon emission rate.
It’s not that I want everyone to stop working out or eating their vegetables or caring about their health. I just want everyone to stop obsessing over it. Can we change the subject, please?