Last week, the Orient circulated an anonymous survey to students investigating health and eating at Bowdoin.
Of the 538 respondents, 61 percent were female and 39 percent were male. Eighty-four percent of students said that they felt Bowdoin created a healthy eating environment, while 55 percent of female students reported that they think they need to lose weight, and 45 percent of female students were worried about a friend’s eating habits. Six percent of students reported that they had been diagnosed with an eating disorder.
According to Director of Health Services Sandra Hayes, issues of disordered eating are more complicated than a black-and-white diagnosis.
“It’s on a continuum.” she said, “I think that many people at some time in their lives have had disordered eating…we’re always on the spectrum.”
Greg Rosen ’14, a co-leader of Peer Health, said that although the Bowdoin students are likely well-informed about disordered eating, they may be reluctant to admit problems with their own diet.
“The difference is that they rationalize their own eating habits as not being problematic,” he said.
Brittany Maxwell ’13 developed an eating disorder her sophomore year.
“I started exercising a little more and eating a little healthier and it was all done in a really healthy, well-balanced way,” she said. “I got such good feedback that I kept going. And all of a sudden it went from really healthy to really unhealthy.”
While she never counted calories, Maxwell said that her doctors and counselor estimated that she’d been eating about 500 to 600 calories a day while also over exercising. Eventually, her disordered eating patterns reached the point where friends and family began to take notice, and she took a year off from school to focus on recovering.
Sophie Namara ’16 thinks that some disordered eating patterns are linked to Bowdoin’s high-stress environment.
“You’re constantly doing work and trying to be in control of something, and [eating is] something that you can control,” she said.
“There are so many people here who are perfectionists, it’s just our culture,” she said. “And that can lead to wanting to be the perfect healthy nut, the perfect fitness nut.”
Maeve O’Leary ’14, another co-leader of Peer Health, said that Bowdoin students are fairly aware of food and body.
“Students are pretty food conscious and body conscious in the dining halls and in spaces like the gym,” she said.
According to a number of survey respondents, however, that awareness is not necessarily healthy.
“I’ve become very conscious of my food intake which honestly for me has helped me become a lot healthier,” said a senior female. “For a lot of my friends, though, this environment has been hostile. Two of my best friends have eating disorders and I’ve seen casual acquaintances shrink to a horrifying level.”
A junior female also discussed problems with the College’s eating culture.
“If you’re a Bowdoin female and aren’t self-conscious of your weight, you’re a minority,” she said. “Never before have I been so conscious of what I eat.”
According to Hayes, a number of female students have told her that they feel that others are constantly watching what they’re eating.
“What’s reported to me, by women at least, is the feeling that people know or are looking at or are judging what or how people are eating,” she said.
A Balanced Plate
Maxwell believes that healthy options in Bowdoin’s dining halls are largely positive, but that the environment can lead to disordered eating for certain students.
“It’s hard for people like me who can take things to the extreme,” she said. “It’s also hard if you look at the dining hall…You see all the girls with salads, there’s no protein or fat—it’s all veggies. The salad bar in Thorne—they never have proteins to put on the salad; it drives me nuts. That can navigate people who have a fear of food towards certain things.”
While 84 percent of survey respondents said that they feel Bowdoin creates a healthy eating environment, a number of anonymous comments cited concerns about the culture that surrounds eating habits at Bowdoin. Several noted a regular tendency among female students to eat salads at every meal.
“I think Bowdoin creates a healthy eating environment in that the foods that are served are generally healthy,” wrote a sophomore female, “but I think there is extreme pressure to eat healthy for every single meal, meaning eating salads. There is a disconnect between what is healthy and what is low-calorie.”
According to Hayes, students should be eating all foods in moderation.
“People also need and tend to shrink away from fats and carbohydrates,” she said. “You can get a lot of really wonderful things on the salad bar. But if that’s all you’re eating, that’s a problem.”
The Male Perspective
Male students also struggle with disordered eating, though Hayes noted that it’s not always entirely clear how these issues manifest in male students.
“The majority of people that we treat are women; however, we know by research that eating disorders or disordered eating are exploding within the male community,” she said. “That will look different than females.”
One first-year male respondent said that he was isolated by his disorder.
“I usually go to the dining hall and eat alone,” he wrote, “since I don’t really want other people to notice my eating habits. Not a single person at Bowdoin knows about my disorder, but I kind of like it that way. My male friends would probably not understand my disorder, so I’d rather just not bring it up.”
According to the survey, 23 percent of males feel that they need to lose weight, while 19 percent of males said that they need to gain weight.
While some students expressed anxiety about their own relationship with food, the survey also indicated widespread concern about the eating habits of others. Forty-five percent of female respondents and eight percent of males said that they were concerned about their friends’ diets.
“In my group of nine-ish friends, at least six have serious eating issues, and two were anorexic at some point over the past two years,” wrote a junior female.
“There are two issues dealing with a friend’s eating disorder: one is getting them help, and the other is getting yourself help. That process is usually really difficult, emotionally straining and ultimately very frustrating,” said O’Leary.
Hayes said that Counseling Services, Peer Health, the health center, and Coordinator of Health Education Whitney Hogan can be resources for students.
Hayes also called attention to Bowdoin’s contracted nutritionist and noted that a group of health professionals on campus meets multiple times per month to collaboratively help specific students. Representatives from the Counseling Center, Health Services, the Director of Athletic Training, and the nutritionist make up this team.
“All of the students who are discussed on this team know we are sharing information,” she said.
Changing the Culture
According to Rosen, Peer Health is currently preparing body image and eating disorder programming for February. The group’s work is focused primarily on prevention.
“Health is something that’s different for everyone, and people’s perceptions of health are very different,” he said.
A junior female agreed.
“I think that Bowdoin is, by and large, a very healthy environment. However, I also believe that we have created a culture around a certain type of eating,” she wrote in survey comments. “I love Bowdoin, but I would hate it if we perpetuated the idea that there is a single healthy way to eat. Different things work for different people’s bodies.”
Hayes said that her motto is “health at every size.”
“We need to rethink what health looks like,” she said.
Many interviewed stated that the best way to help combat these issues on campus is to reframe perceptions around how food works with your body and start to have a conversation about eating culture at Bowdoin.
“I think that people want to have a conversation about it,” said Maxwell. Hayes agreed.
“We as a community at Bowdoin need to have this conversation,” she said. “What can we do to prevent this, what can we do to change the culture here at Bowdoin. We’ve done a phenomenal job about homophobic language, bystander intervention…My challenge to the Bowdoin student community would be to do it, let’s change the culture at Bowdoin.”