At fourteen years old, my parents were a bit shocked by my sudden and very adamant stance that going forward, I would only be eating groceries purchased from Whole Foods, and Whole Foods only.
As a shy teenager with low self-esteem, attending a new school, and dealing with a family issue that turned my life upside down, I felt like I had no control over anything in my life.
The only thing I felt that I could control was my health—and I convinced myself this was a good outlet for my stress. Even when I began to exercise twice a day, used a calorie counter for all of my meals, and brought a packed salad to pool parties so I had an excuse not to eat the pizza, I told myself I was doing something good.
My makeshift gateway drug to the toxic health culture, the internet, validated my unhealthy behaviors at every step.
Wasn’t I, though? My makeshift gateway drug to the toxic health culture, the internet, validated my unhealthy behaviors at every step. My home screen on YouTube featured high school girls reflecting on their “weight loss” routines. My search history was overwhelmed with new exercise challenges. My camera roll was littered with screenshots of motivational weight loss quotes.
All I needed to fuel my obsession was right at my fingertips.
Praise for a Problem
I was praised for my willpower, my health, and the lifestyle I created to cover the pain I felt inside. It took seven months for someone to realize I had a problem. It took seven months for someone to realize I might need treatment.
At fourteen years old, I told my best friend I was going to get help because I was struggling with disordered eating.
“Why do you need treatment?” she said. “You’re just healthy.”
But I wasn’t just healthy. My disordered mentality had manifested itself in a health-focused lifestyle that was desirable and maybe even enviable to those around me—but it was still disordered. However, because I didn’t show the telltale signs of anorexia or bulimia nervosa, even those closest to me failed to notice.
I was lucky enough to recover from my health obsession and realize the ways in which I made excuses for my unhealthy behaviors that promoted my spiral into negative self-concept.
I built back a healthy relationship with food and my body. I swapped my calculated chia-seeds-with-almond-butter-on-a-low-fat-rice-cake breakfast for a chocolate-chip-bagel-with-cream-cheese.
But changing up my breakfast routine wasn’t my last battle with toxic health culture.
Issues in College Health Culture
Maintaining a positive self-image was still an ongoing battle for me. Though I had made progress, and I was eager to be immersed in the college setting that was more accepting and less judgmental than the one I found in high school.
I had heard stories that painted the college experience as an inclusive culture with an emphasis on self-discovery, a place to learn and grow and figure out who you truly want to be.
Naturally, as I now enter my senior year of college, I’ve realized that I was very wrong.
College students are tasked with the immense difficulty of balancing mental and physical health along with academic and social obligations, which seems almost impossible to do perfectly.
If you think you are doing it perfectly, you may be lying to yourself. A perfect score in all of these areas is unattainable. A perfect score in just one of these areas is unattainable.
A few personal examples:
- During the course of an academic semester, 5 cups of coffee a day is the average for me.
- Constructive criticism from professors makes me feel like the world is ending.
- I haven’t exercised since I stepped foot on my college campus and I occasionally enjoy eating two bags of cookies and a soda for lunch on the go in the library.
- I have been frequently spotted crying in the psychology building.
I give myself grace for not being perfect in all areas. College is hard.
However, balancing physical health and mental health takes on a different meaning in an environment where exterior perfection is scrutinized, and social media documents every angle and flaw.
There is no doubt that a toxic health culture exists in the college population in the common utilization of unhealthy means to achieve unattainable ideas of perfection.
Now more than ever, this toxicity is harder to spot.
A study by Costarelli & Patsai in 2012 indicated that there is an increase in rates of stress and disordered eating for college students, especially women. Within college female social spheres, I have witnessed a competitive, toxic health culture.
Women are praised for their willpower and discipline, all the while engaging in damaging health behaviors and clearly exhibiting distressing emotions tied to physical health.
Calories are cut drastically in the days leading up to a formal event so as not to ruin one’s perceived figure in a nice dress.
Exercise is used as a punishment for a late night pizza run or too many drinks the night before.
A dinner out is not complete without the dissection of the menu options, a full-fledged dialogue: Well, I had a burger for lunch yesterday. Should I just get a salad? Maybe a burger on a lettuce bun?
There seems to be a constant obsession with food, exercise, and physical appearance. Back in high school, I was the only fourteen-year-old I knew who struggled with a health obsession turned dangerous. Now, I see it all around me.
One of the biggest issues with the toxic health culture in college is that identity is so fragile—you are just getting to know yourself. At this stage of life, your identity is malleable under the opinions and perceptions of others.
One of the biggest issues with the toxic health culture in college is that identity is so fragile—you are just getting to know yourself.
If someone else is engaging in behaviors that seem to lead to a desirable physical appearance, you may be influenced to do the same. The other confounding issue is that there is nothing inherently wrong with this behavior, in moderation.
Healthy eating, regular exercise, and consistent health checkups are heavily encouraged by most doctors and medical professionals.
However, if we fail to notice when the acquisition of a “healthy lifestyle” becomes a rigid and dangerous obsession, we fail to notice one of the newest mental health issues in our society.
The Disorder That Hides: Orthorexia Nervosa
The term “orthorexia nervosa” originated in 1997 by American physician Dr. Steven Bratman, and can be described as when “the desire to eat healthy, clean, unprocessed foods becomes a life-ruining compulsion.”
Bratman originally coined the term to assist his patients in deducing that their healthy eating habits were not as healthy as they thought they were, but then realized that orthorexia nervosa was a valid and prevalent problem in Western cultures.
Dr. Karin Katrina noted that orthorexia nervosa “starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity.”
But how do we diagnose and treat an issue that is encouraged in society, encouraged by our peers, encouraged by our doctors?
How do we treat an issue that is elusive and hidden behind a facade of healthiness?
A healthy lifestyle is now more encouraged by modern Western ideals of beauty and can be used as a scapegoat to diverge from historical societal trends of emphasizing extremely slim figures, especially in women.
One of the most prevalent “negatives” of technology is the fact that utilization of technology allows mass populations access into varying ideals and cultural structures that may be damaging.
How do we treat an issue that is elusive and hidden behind a facade of healthiness?
It seems that recently there has been a heavy shift in focus in Western media from the thin figure that is ridiculously unattainable, to an extremely health conscious environment that operates under the guise of a healthy lifestyle, not a restrictive one.
This is seen in the example of the popular hashtag #StrongNotSkinny, which has been widely utilized to promote the idea of a healthy lifestyle over damaging behaviors that may be associated with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.
However, this movement can end up being a tactic of body shaming that encourages women to reach yet another physical goal, and further helps to hide any warning signs that one might develop an issue such as orthorexia nervosa.
“Our health conscious environment, for all its good intentions, may be what’s tipping vulnerable people over the edge,” Dr. Katrina notes.
The lifestyle of constant exercising and strict healthy eating is not only largely accepted, but coveted in Western culture, coveted in our social spheres.
To College Females: Set Yourself Free
For college females, having a “healthy” lifestyle is now a desirable aspect of social presence. There are countless social media posts of women going to the gym or exercise classes, or spinach smoothies with a filter on them.
Don’t get me wrong, if you love exercising and eating healthy and are able to do so in a manner where you can maintain a healthy balance between your physical and mental health, keep that up. You do you, girl.
But using exercise as a punishment is not to be celebrated. “Do you wanna go to a spin class later? I feel fat today.” If this is you, I know how you feel. I know the pressures that surround you and the society that has failed you.
In middle school, we watched our favorite clothes brands send us magazines to the masses demonstrating photo-shopped women, computerized to fit a Western idea of beauty that realistically, no one would ever reach.
Now as college women, society has attempted to make leaps and bounds in dealing with the issue of body image perpetuated by the media.
The cycle only ends when we validate each other in living lives of healthy balance.
Instead, society has created a new beast: a health-conscious environment that again encourages women to strive towards a figure that is constantly elusive but set by the ideals around us.
Even scarier, this new ideal of a perfect healthy lifestyle is harder to spot when it becomes detrimental to our mental health.
Girls, I implore you: Eat the slice of pizza if you want. Eat a second slice because it’s just that good. Skip the spin class if you’re too tired to go. Don’t let a formal dress tell you how to live your life. If you don’t like spinach smoothies, don’t drink them.
The cycle only ends when we validate each other in living lives of healthy balance. Life is way too short, eat the chocolate.
And most importantly, ask yourself and your society these questions: Why do we keep telling women to be something? Why do I have to be skinny? Why do I have to be strong? Why do I have to be anything at all besides what I truly am and what I choose to be?
When will women just be allowed to create their own ideas of beauty, and be released from the pressures of achieving the unachievable?
That’s when we’ll know that our battle of a toxic health culture is over.
Written By: Stuart Burger
Stuart is a rising senior at Clemson University studying Psychology and Sociology.
In her free time, you’ll find her writing original songs on her piano or guitar, working through her phobia of broken bones or putting ranch dressing on…everything.