National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: A study at Washington and Lee

What does healthy mean to you?


Photo by Hannah Denham, ’20.

Andy Smithey

She’s in a popular sorority. She has an excellent GPA. And she thinks about eating all day long.

An unnamed female, upperclass student said she struggles with feeling comfortable in her body. She said she knows it’s not healthy, but she’s afraid of gaining weight.

“I’m constantly thinking about it all day,” she said. “It’s not because I should eat this to make me stronger. It’s like, ‘I should eat this to make me thinner or to prevent me from gaining weight.’”

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week was February 25 through March 3. But for students, especially women, who have a complicated relationship with body image, food and exercise, awareness on this campus is minimal.

One former collegiate athlete, who is recovering from anorexia, referred to many of her mother’s comments and behaviors she said pressured her to restrict her eating habits.

“I started restricting my food probably when I was 16 or 17 just because my mom was like, ‘When you get older your metabolism slows down and you can’t eat like a kid,’” she said. “‘You can’t just eat candy all the time.’”

Her mother sent her to her personal trainer who taught her about calories and the way she could lose weight if she burned more than she ate. As she dropped weight at an unhealthy pace, her mother would praise her, she said.

“With my mom, she was like, “You look phenomenal!” every time I would lose five more pounds,” she said. “So there’s just positive reinforcement of being skinny.”

The most helpful step she’s taken in her recovery from an eating disorder was leaving home for college, she said.

“What I’ve learned is that my body is not a calculator, it’s a body,” she said. “And I’m not a robot. I’m a human.”

The unnamed female upperclass student said her mom played a big role in shaping her relationship between food and body image, as well.

“My mom is a big influence on me,” she said. “We are pretty much the same person. She’s like my best friend and I look up to her so much and I want to be like her so I mimic her behaviors. And she doesn’t have anything severe but she does think about it like I do all the time and always is like, “I need to lose ten pounds,” or “Wait until you go shopping with me, I’m huge,” or “I’m fat as a tick.” Seeing her who is a very thin woman saying to herself, “Oh my gosh, I’m so fat” is like, what the heck? Does that mean I need to think about that too?”

The knowledge gap seems to be because of gender and differences in what makes the ideal body. A few students shared that the disparity is apparent in heterosexual relationships, too.

“We are in this time in our life when relationships are really on our minds all the time and important so I think people do change their habits in order to be more appealing,” the unnamed female student said. “[It’s] natural but also really sucky, because relationships should be based on your personality.”

This rings true for the female former athlete, who said that her relationship with her boyfriend in high school fueled her eating disorder.

“With my boyfriend we started to have issues and so I was like, ‘What’s the one thing I can change? This,’” she said. “The only people who were like ‘you need to lose weight’… were my mom and my boyfriend.”

She added that the pressure in her relationship didn’t work both ways.

“My boyfriend in high school was not good looking and just not a bodybuilder with an eight-pack,” she said. “He looked like a normal, unhealthy guy. But he needed me to be smaller than him. He needed me to be tiny and cute.”

A male basketball player confirmed he doesn’t feel the same pressure to fit a certain body type that women do.

“I think it’s because guys universally have a very limited view of what they think is beautiful, whether that’s societal or not it’s just what it is,” he said. “Women have a more vast view of what they think is attractive… For guys it’s a bit different because women aren’t pressuring us to look any kind of way.”

The female upperclass student said social media also influences her body image.

“I also think that social media is really shitty about that,” she said. “You are scrolling through your feed every day and you see these women that are insanely beautiful and skinny.”

This pressure to be thin can influence how some female students exercise. Cardio machines such as treadmills and ellipticals burn calories at high rates in short periods of time, as opposed to lifting weights that builds muscle.

That divide is evident in the gym on campus. Just about everyone uses the cardio machines like the elliptical and treadmill, but the free weights section is typically dominated by male students.

A few female students shared that they have little knowledge about lifting and prefer to stick to the cardio machines.

“They are just the easiest thing to me,” a first-year female student said. “I don’t really know how to work the other machines.”

The unnamed female upperclass student also stated that she prefers to do the elliptical mixed in with ab circuits and light machines.

“I’ve been doing them forever,” she said. “I haven’t really been taught how to properly lift so I feel like I’d mess up and not do well.”

But as for a male basketball player’s ideal body? “Jacked.”

“Definitely the goal is two things: to get stronger and to look stronger,” he said. “So, obviously capped shoulders, big biceps and triceps, full chest, and the abs clearly.”

A male wrestler said he felt more of a pressure that in high school.

“You always felt like you had to look more jacked,” he said. But he now works out because he enjoys it and it improves his athletic ability.

It’s also reflected in their diet. Some male students and female athletes said they prioritize eating food rich with protein and vegetables. But the female, nonathletes said they eat to keep their bodies slim — and if they don’t, they have to make up for it in the gym.

“If I feel like I’ve eaten really poorly the day before, I’ll focus the next day on having vegetables and pure protein and I’ll work out for longer if the day before I had fries,” said the female upperclass student.

The female student who is a former athlete said she had the same mindset when she was  struggling with anorexia.

“It was just all a game of burning calories,” she said. “It was more like I worked out to make up for the food that I ate was sort of my mentality.”

Many students acknowledged that they eat differently when they are stressed.

“When I’m stressed I definitely eat foods that are worse for me,” one female student said. “I think that sometimes when I have big tests or big things going on with classes, I’ll definitely feel like I’m rewarding myself by eating something that I probably shouldn’t.”

What does healthy mean to you?

“I think a lot of it is being happy with yourself and confident in yourself and your abilities and your strength.” – junior girl, sorority member

“I think healthy is taking care of myself. It’s listening to the needs of my body and my brain.” – senior girl, unaffiliated

“I kind of equate happy with healthy.” – female lacrosse player

“I think about it like, do I feel good? Can I run as far as I did yesterday? Am I lifting the same amounts?” – female basketball player

“Healthy is like just giving your body what it needs.” – junior girl, recovering from anorexia

Editor’s note: The original version of this story, “Are You Healthy?: A Study of Health Choices Among Students at Washington and Lee University,” was written for the writer’s qualitative methods class (SOAN 208) with Professor Sascha Goluboff from fall 2018. Because of Institutional Review Board standards, all interviews were required to be recorded anonymously. It has since been edited for journalistic style.