Around 10 percent of female University students purge in some way — make themselves vomit, use laxatives, diuretics or diet pills. Approximately 60 percent of Michigan students became more body conscious after starting college. And 27.8 percent of female undergraduates and 11.8 percent of male undergraduates screened positive for eating disorders. I could go on, but the remaining figures — which are consistently higher than the last study in 2008 — paint an equally grim picture.
These are the preliminary results from the University Study of Habits, Attitudes and Perceptions around Eating. In October 2012, researchers from the University collaborated on U-SHAPE with Ann Arbor’s Center for Eating Disorders, surveying the University student body “to understand students’ habits, attitudes, and perceptions around eating, dieting, exercising and body image and how these fit into a larger picture of student well-being.”
The researchers attribute these high rates to the University students’ competitive nature. And the study offers other clues too: On average, students considered hook-up culture and Greek life to negatively influence their eating habits and body image. However, I think there’s another issue at hand: anti-fat prejudice.
I know that making causal claims about the relationship between fat discrimination and eating disorders is tricky. However, with more than half of the student body conceding, “I would like myself more if I were thinner” and with 90 percent of female students and 55 percent of male students worried about gaining the “Freshman 15,” it’s hard to deny there’s a fear of getting fat.
This study, along with many others, reveals how detrimental this fear truly is. In a recent article from The Washington Post, Abigail Saguy, a sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues that “Anti-fat prejudice harms average-size and thin people … as the fear of becoming fat drives many of them to develop eating disorders and body-image problems.”
And even more, this anti-fat prejudice harms those considered overweight or obese. Though research has shown that obesity is a chronic disease caused by a combination of one’s genes and their environment, many consider the obese to be lazy and self-indulgent. This stereotype has many negative consequences. Many health professionals practice size-profiling — or attributing a patient’s ailments to weight — and thus fail to provide the adequate care. Not only are there medical consequences, but there are also emotional ones. Studies reveal that the obese routinely experience insulting and dismissive treatment when shopping and that obese women receive lower wages than equally qualified, thinner women.
This isn’t to say there aren’t health risks associated with obesity — for example, as weight increases so does the likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes. But there are also negative health consequences associated with being average weight. For example, a study at the Center for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health found that adults considered overweight or obese had a lower mortality risk than average-weight individuals, showing that weight is not always proxy for personal well-being.
So, what’s the point in citing all of these statistics and studies?
It’s to say that using weight as a stand-in for health is a slippery slope. And discrimination of the obese can be just as detrimental to society’s physical and emotional health as obesity itself. With this in mind, I think we ought to listen to Judith Banker, principal investigator of the U-SHAPE study, when she encourages “students (to) become activists on a very personal level by avoiding diet and weight talk … The collective power of such individual actions can’t be underestimated. Imagine if everyone on campus stopped talking about feeling fat or pointing out fat people or stopped talking about what diet they were on or should be on.”
I can already hear the collective sigh of relief.
Zoe Stahl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.