Widgets Magazine


From Farm to Fork: When health becomes unhealthy

When we speak about gym visits, kale smoothies, Dish jogs and the merits of homemade granola, my friends and I couch our discussions in terms of health. When these discussions expand to include eight-minute abs, overeating, weight concerns and “commitments” to eat more responsibly (God forbid we acknowledge they’re actually diets), we still hide behind the word health.

If I’m just trying to be “healthy,” what could be wrong? Perhaps the fact that there are periods when, internally, I obsess over it. I publicly condemn the emphasis on body image, but somehow I justify obsessing over it in private. This type of public-private doublethink reveals just how unhealthy conversations about health can become.

I don’t have an eating disorder, but I do have “body image concerns.” I know this thanks to the free Eating Disorders Screening offered through the Stanford Healthy Body Image Program. While my concerns have never manifested themselves in an eating disorder, fully six percent of the Stanford population suffers from anorexia. That’s huge. In fact, it’s at least six times greater than the background rate in the United States.

This high percentage is typical on elite college campuses, but its prevalence doesn’t make it acceptable. Though it’s harder to measure, Stanford also has a huge number of students with sub-clinical disordered eating behaviors.

There are some innate behaviors that predispose high-achieving individuals to obsess over body image and compete for a perfectionist ideal, albeit an unrealistic one. However, there are also factors specific to Stanford and elite academic environments that foster disordered eating. High-stress environments correlate strongly with eating disorders. In a competitive environment where driven students are constantly striving for improvement, it’s easy to add body image to a list of existing things we’re working on improving (which might include everything from this quarter’s grades to the world). At Stanford, we also live in a rare bubble in which the vast majority of the population is physically fit. This is a symptom as well as a driver. Fitness is obviously an important part of California culture, and the labels “active” and “foodie” describe the ideal Bay Area resident.

Stanford students also have a tendency to compartmentalize and smile too much. Yes, we smile too much. Sometimes it’s important to admit that you’re struggling. For food and diet, we shouldn’t publicly deny the societal importance of body image but privately obsess over the size of our thighs or the chocolate cake at dinner or the spin classes at Arrillaga.

The tendencies that lead to disordered eating and poor body image are innate to some Stanford students before they set foot on campus, but there’s also something about this environment that exacerbates these existing tendencies. It’s hard to decry the determination, drive and dedication that enable academic success as well as eating disorders, but it is possible to change the norms and ideals that transform these positive attributes into disordered eating behaviors.

I live in one of the most accepting cooperative communities on campus and am friends with incredibly compassionate, encouraging individuals who rarely engage in the type of “fat talk” found elsewhere in this state and country. But it can still slip in.

Fat talk denotes the everyday statements that further a societal thin ideal. At Stanford, fat talk does not always fall into the more easily identified negative genre (i.e., “Do I look fat in this?” and “I need to lose ten pounds.”). As socially conscious students, we know this discourse is harmful and cloak our fat talk in more insidious jargon. Think: “Those Lululemon pants look great on you! Have you been working out?” and “Let’s go to the gym so I can have death by chocolate for dessert in Ricker Dining Hall.”

So how can we change this campus culture and foster a healthier body image?

It’s important to be open about these issues. The Stanford Healthy Body Image Program is attempting to create a space for dialogue about body image through student groups and workshops. They also provide a series of online assessments and resources directing individuals and friends to professionals at Vaden, CAPS and elsewhere on and off campus.

We should all work to eliminate fat talk. Delta Delta Delta is promoting the “fat talk free” pledge, whereby individuals promise to “strive not for a thin ideal but for a healthy ideal.” This is a worthwhile goal, but we should also be careful to ensure the healthy ideal doesn’t just substitute for the thin ideal.


Jenny would love to start this dialogue with you at jrempel “at” stanford “dot” edu.

  • Student

    Great article that raises a lot of important issues, but I have noticed that this and other Daily articles focusing on eating disorders at Stanford center primarily on anorexic tendencies. Anorexia is, of course, prevalent at Stanford, but there are certainly a number of students suffering from other disorders (bulimia, most obviously, but other forms of disordered eating, too) here as well who may not identify with the perfectionistic, type A personality that is often referred to when making connections between Stanford and anorexia.

  • I would like to comment that eating disorders have compulsive-obsession elements to them.  Your inner self may be blocked by intelligence or your genes, and you may need a DMT un-blocker to reach your inner self.

  • Undergrad

    Absolutely wonderful article and completely spot-on. The Stanford community needs more awareness about this issue. Let’s leave the overachieving to the places where it matters – like the classroom, perhaps – instead of devoting our brainpower to such a futile and superficial ideal.