At dinner one night, a friend shared with me an observation on Yalies’ dining habits: “People here are all so thin. They’re so aware of their health, and everyone eats salad all the time.”
Her remark reminded me of a line that I heard freshmen tossing around when I first arrived on campus: “There’s really no such thing as a fat Yalie.” An IvyGate article on the mini bagel crisis stated, “If there is one thing Yalies care more passionately about than the environment, it is avoiding carbohydrates.”
These generalizations scratch the surface of a complex school culture surrounding food. The rituals of snacking, dining and breaking bread at Yale are dictated by a diverse set of individual attitudes towards what we consume — among them the environmentally conscious, morally inclined, religiously guided and healthfully and aesthetically concerned. Our idiosyncratic relationships with food are natural given our varied backgrounds, outlooks and lifestyles; for the most part, that’s entirely healthy. But there’s also the very real risk that these habits verge on unhealthy, or even disordered.
The Yale eating culture didn’t shock me the way it did my friend, who comes from a Midwestern environment that’s more carnivorous and food-positive. My personal relationship with food developed under strong family and community moderation of what and how I ate. My family restricted desserts to weekends; friends, relatives and peers remarked frequently on bodies — mine, theirs, celebrities’. My eating, from a very young age, became implicated with emotions: boredom, stress and, more than anything, guilt. In fourth grade, I wore only long pants and skirts, even in the heat; I confronted a camp counselor one summer with the confession that I found my legs “too fat” for public display.
I came to Yale a vegan, partially motivated by my intense disgust at the meat and dairy industries and partially by my lingering discomfort with my body. But despite an ostensibly healthy eating regimen, I have continued to grapple intensely with food. My stress-eating habits don’t mesh well with my deep fear of gaining weight. For most of fall semester, I fluctuated between normal eating, junk food binges and several failed attempts to induce vomiting in the bathroom downstairs of the Berkeley dining hall. I don’t have an eating disorder, and my weight continues to be average. But that doesn’t necessarily make my habits healthy.
Our emphasis on disorders that have well-known labels — like anorexia and bulimia — means that we often overlook more subtle varieties of disordered eating. For me, that has meant avoiding the dining halls and opting instead for frozen food, turning down invitations to dine out, and associating fullness with personal failure. It’s meant compulsively logging my food intake on an app that informs me a handful of my Yale peers are using it, too.
I’m inclined to think that Yale students, like plenty of other college populations, face a heightened risk for developing unhealthy relationships with our food. An article in the Yale Herald last year succinctly described the phenomenon that entangles academic and social order with our eating culture: “Yale is an intense place, and in our collective scramble to reach the top, students find solace in control — be it academic or nutritional.” Control is key to understanding most disordered relationships with eating. I remember being informed as a kid that choosing the “right” foods and staying fit is just a matter of self-discipline. But in an environment of intense pressure, discipline blurs quickly into compulsion or obsession.
The communal environment of college dining can be an incubator for unhealthy relationships with food, because we necessarily observe the eating patterns of those around us. That could mean something benign, or even positive, like choosing vegetarianism at the encouragement of peers. But it can also mean limiting portions to match what we see “skinnier” peers eating — without regard for our personal comfort, body type or nutritional needs.
I’m no model for a healthy relationship with food, and I’ll likely continue to struggle with my attitude towards eating. But I intend to consider more closely how my personal ambitions as a Yale student, my relationship with others and even my place in the dining hall shape the way I approach my meals, sometimes in unhealthy ways.
I’m working on distinguishing my relationship with food from an ideal of self-control deeply engrained in the Yale culture. I’ve begun to recognize ways in which my home community has failed me, instilling an unhealthy attitude towards eating and my own body. But I’m now part of a campus community, and my habits and attitudes about food impact those of the people around me. My contribution needs to be a positive one.
Caroline Posner is a freshman in Berkeley College. Her columns run on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .