OPINION: Diet culture hurts students, silences those in recovery

Graphic by Natalie Bauer

CW: Mentions of eating disorders

On Oct. 16, students from Scripps College, Harvey Mudd College, and Claremont McKenna College received an email from Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Recreation promoting their “Health and Wellness Fair,” which specifically (and almost exclusively) highlighted and promoted the fair’s body composition testing.

This email became the center of controversy surrounding how weight is discussed on the 5C campuses and how a focus on quantitative measures like body composition can be detrimental to the overall health of students.

Being that California — specifically the Los Angeles area — is a notoriously image-focused place, messages that prioritize weight loss are omnipresent and hard to escape. This weight and diet-focused culture have affected the Claremont Colleges as well.

Diet culture, which prioritizes thinness, dieting, and weight loss above holistic health, has become so normalized it can be hard to see, especially since it most often appears in the form of microaggressions or unconscious biases. For those of us who do recognize the signs, it is difficult to go through a single day without encountering diet culture several times.

The recent email for the CMS Health and Wellness Fair was just one example of the pervasive weight-focused diet culture. Its specific reference to a “body fat test,” which measures body composition, brings attention to how central weight and numerical markers are in our conversations surrounding health.

Other examples include the calorie counts and “healthy choice” labels in 5C dining halls, as well as the promotional materials provided by the contracted foods service companies. Student Health Services has a poster that advertises “weight-loss” as a primary benefit of eating a healthy diet, and Scripps’ health form for their study abroad programs includes only one number: body mass index.  

While we do not believe CMC, HMC, or Scripps are intentionally promoting fat bias or diet culture, this particular email (along with the many aforementioned factors) have had that impact on many members of the Claremont community.

Although the email does not expressly state anything promoting weight loss, the implications are laced with the promotion of using numbers about one’s body fat as indicators of health. While these measurements might be important for athletes, numbers and weighing oneself can be incredibly triggering for people in recovery or anyone who has struggled with disordered eating and exercise habits.

In an effort to promote health, the colleges have far too often offered strictly numerical perspective; body composition may spur unhealthy patterns, which are aggravated by the pervasive diet culture that creates a poor environment for many students.

The focus of our anger and disappointment is not on the 5Cs’ attempt to promote health, or on those who wish to have access to calorie counts, body composition testing, or other weight related information (however, we do maintain that this information is not in any way an indicator of health). We believe it is important for students to be healthy, both physically and mentally.

But, many cannot achieve such health when weight and body composition is emphasized as a be-all and end-all of wellness. In fact, for many of us, seeing things like calorie counts, weight loss encouragements, and body fat testing can directly and significantly impede our attempts to achieve wellness.

To those adamant that weight and diet be centralized in conversations surrounding health and wellness, it is important to understand that members of the medical community have pointed to findings which show that weight cannot be blamed for the multitude of health problems that are usually attributed to it, as Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor point out in their book “Body Respect.”

Further, studies in Nutrition Journal and Circulation, a scientific journal, have shown that promotion of weight loss does not help individuals achieve better health and can have the consequence of inducing body preoccupation and extremely unhealthy patterns of cyclical weight loss and weight gain.

Without recognizing the potential dangers of advertising “body fat testing” to the student body, and by centralizing weight loss and featuring calorie counts on food items, the 5Cs are ignoring how these practices may be extremely damaging. People who have experienced weight-related bias and/or eating disorders have been left out of the narrative, and that ends now.

If the Claremont Colleges want to promote health and wellness, they must consider the mental health of those who have struggled with disordered behaviors around weight or who have been victims of fat bias. We ask that they refrain from promoting weight loss and centralizing body composition as a defining factor of health, for it forces many of us to re-convince ourselves that it’s not true.

We, as students, are forced to go through this process all too often, and expect better from our educational institutions. It is our hope that the colleges will reconsider their definition of health and wellness, and understand that the conflation of health with body size contributes to a culture that is detrimental to many of us.

Lauren Colella SC ’19 is a psychology major. She spends most of her time thinking about the human brain, her French homework, and her love for cows.

Jamie Haughton SC ’20 is majoring in organizational studies. She is currently studying abroad in Denmark, where she is learning her fourth language.

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