Diet Culture on Denison's Campus and Beyond

MyPlate weight-loss app. Restricted dessert and bread. Tracked calories burned on the treadmill. Squeezed the fat on my stomach hoping it would go away. Sound familiar? Like many women on college campuses, I fell into the trap of diet culture by restricting food to lose weight and maintain the thin-ideal body type for women. I spent the first two years of my college experience in an on-again off-again relationship with weight-loss apps and food rules in a futile attempt to achieve this Western female beauty standard and to maintain control over my body since I felt that I had control over nothing else.

 

However, after discovering body-positive influencer Victoria Garrick and reading Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach (my personal Bible), I now have knowledge that has empowered me to start on my journey towards rejecting diet culture, being content with my ever-changing body, and eating like I love myself. I now know that dieting is not a normal behavior that women should be celebrated for, but is a response to social pressures to conform to patriarchal beauty standards. It is a measure of social control, enacted primarily through the media but perpetuated by everyday people, used to keep women from reaching full liberation despite other societal gains made over the past century. This isn’t just an individual issue, but a social justice one. 

Unsplash / NordWood Themes

When I had the opportunity to conduct a research study in my Feminist Research Methods course, I was beyond excited to study diet culture and the effects it has on women. I specifically wanted to find out how diet culture played out in dining halls on Denison’s campus and if it had specific implications for female-identifying students. After reading numerous sources, conducting two interviews, and analyzing survey data, I came to some surprising yet important findings. While I haven’t completely finished the analysis of my data, here are some major themes I’ve pulled out so far: 

 

  • There is a disconnect between what students think dieting is versus what it actually is.

    • Accomplished nutritionists and authors of Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, define dieting as “food restriction for the purpose of shrinking your body” (Tribole and Resch 19). In my survey, many participants reported that they have never dieted before, yet indicated some restrictive food behaviors in other questions about eating. I think there is a common misconception that dieting is only when you’re on a specific food plan or program, but it is more than that; it is any type of food restriction or rule that is implemented for one to lose weight and achieve a smaller body. Putting limits on desserts and carbs, choosing a salad over a sandwich even when you’re starving, and ignoring hunger cues are all forms of dieting.

  • There is an unfair correlation between body-size and health.

    • Both interview participants indicated that there is a common misconception that lower-weight people are “healthy” and more physically fit and higher-weight people are “unhealthy” and less physically active. However, both participants had personal experiences not fitting into these norms that they view as problematic for women and their body image.

  • Students didn’t base their choice of where to eat on-campus based on dieting, but once they arrived at the dining hall, they were cognizant of gender and body-size discrimination

    • Before starting the research, I hypothesized that some female students would base their choice of dining hall on low-calorie options, however, none of the participants in my study indicated that was the case. Yet, both of my interview participants indicated that once they arrived at the dining hall there were different eating behaviors based on gender and body size. For example, men and lower-weight students tend to be served more food than women and higher-weight students. They also mentioned how men are more comfortable asking for more food and getting up for seconds.

  • There is a need for more awareness of diet culture on college campuses.

    • Both of my interview participants indicated that a solution to diet culture on college campuses would be just to have more conversations about it. The ways that we buy into diet culture are so unconscious and no one is really talking about them. Things like discussions and programs on diet culture as well as educational posters in diet halls came through as possible solutions.

  • Despite oppressive female beauty standards of thinness, female college students, and college students in general, are still finding ways to listen to their bodies. 

    • Both of my interview participants as well as several survey respondents expressed desire to eat fresh foods and avoid fried foods because fried foods make them feel sick while fresh fruits and vegetables make them feel good. Many students also based their choice of where to eat on-campus on what sounded good based on the online menu. Even though women and other college students are facing so many appearance standards and problematic beliefs about eating, they are still managing to honor their bodies and eat with care.

healthy meal Photo by Ella Olsson from Pexels

Sources

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf

Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Dieting Approach by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch