Looking at all the pretty young things in Isla Vista as they ride their bikes or saunter down the streets, you would never think about the struggles both the women and men go through to stay thin or attractive. It’s not something that most of us think about, but even young people, maybe especially young people, are obsessed with their body image.
It wasn’t until I had a child that I really started to think about the damage you can do to yourself by worrying about your weight or how you look. I was pretty oblivious before that.
In college, many of the women I knew were dieting or/and miserable about the weight they had gained their freshman year. I remember visiting a friend’s sorority house and seeing a long row of Slim Fast containers in the kitchen, and being surprised by the number of the residents on diets. I had talked with one of my more socially aware friends about the effect of fashion magazines on young girls, but at the time I still didn’t get it.
Now — after spending many years worrying about what my children eat, and trying to strike some sort of balance between offering them only healthy food and getting them to eat at all — I get it. The lesson has been learned. One of the most enlightening lectures I’ve been to was one in which a nutritionist discussed healthy eating habits in children. Instead of avoiding all “bad” foods, like cookies, she said to strike a balance. She said eating should be fun and social, not stressful. For example, when children come home from school, you can offer them a plate with carrots, cheese, crackers, and cookies. The idea was not to be afraid to give your kids an Oreo, or ice cream. That’s okay, in moderation.
As part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week), a UCSB organization called Healthy Eating and Living (HEAL) planned a series of events to help get this type of message out to students. HEAL representatives set up tables, a talk, and other events to educate the student population about eating disorders. The group handed out free items, such as snack items, like animal crackers, buttons with slogans like “I Love My Body,” water, condoms, and pamphlets about nutrition, dieting, body image, and healthy food. “We are getting information out to students,” said Benjamin Aceves, HEAL’s external coordinator.
With an estimated 15.9 percent of males and 21.4 percent of females in the UCSB student population meeting the formal criteria for an eating disorder, according to a 2002 UCSB survey, the problem is significant. You can take a quiz at HEAL’s Web site to see how much you already know and find out more. For example, I didn’t know that 25 percent of men were on diets, or that 95 to 98 percent of diets fail.
While we are all familiar with the horrible effects of anorexia and bulimia in women, many people are surprised to learn that quite a few men suffer from eating disorders. Aceves said he thinks the incidence among men is increasing. He said that societal messages are now putting pressure on men to have the “perfect physique.” Eating disorders in men and women sometimes look a little different. While men more typically manifest eating disorders through such things as obsessive exercising and the use of protein powders, women more often binge, purge, or use “cleansing” diets. Aceves said it is important to see a dietician or a counselor for help. “Eating disorders are very serious,” he warned. “It can get worse before it gets better.”
If you think that the representatives from HEAL will make you feel bad about your current or former eating choices, this is not the case. The message they want to send to students is the 80/20 rule. You can eat 80 percent of foods following the healthy nutrition guidelines; the rest can be whatever you want. “We give people flexibility,” he said. The message is to “eat moderately and don’t starve yourself.”
Even though Eating Disorders Awareness Week is coming to a close, I don’t think the message should be forgotten. Students, and everyone else, need to realize that being perfect isn’t really necessary. What is important is developing the habits and lifestyle that will allow you to lead a full and happy life. So next time you see the HEAL representatives, stop by, grab a snack, and remind yourself to love your body.