By Sarah MacKenzie and Siobhán Mitchell
[Note: This post discusses disordered eating on campus.]
The year has brought new challenges to our young lives like never before, but some things have remained constant as the world works to heal from the COVID-19 pandemic. Not just at Denison, but all over our nation and this world, young individuals are put on a pedestal by social media in the increasingly competitive environment to fit society’s ideal image, which is more often than not an illusion. We have grown up in a generation focused on external beauty and status that puts a lot of pressure on young individuals like ourselves to look and feel “perfect.” However at the same time, especially at a place like Denison, and in a social group like the Greek affiliated one, students are also expected to participate in binge drinking 3x a week that can lead to unanticipated mental and physical changes which may contribute to body image difficulties.
After spending many years living through and mostly enjoying this fast-paced party environment we wondered if it takes a toll on individuals in a way that we, for the most part, have been lucky enough to not experience personally. In our most recent survey in March, 127 asked the Denison student body several questions regarding their knowledge of their peers drinking and eating habits of restricting prior to binge drinking. We asked this because we were particularly interested if restricting calories is related to the previously established mass consumption of alcohol across campus or if it is an independent social expectation within and outside of the Greek community. We have strong expectations that restricting is a gendered practice, but don’t know that for sure.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, women in the Greek system make up the highest percentage of peers restricting calories overall. Although young women may be more likely to restrict calories and participate in weight loss strategies, disordered eating has been shown to transgress gender boundaries with men accounting for about 25% of disordered eating cases. Although restricting calories is not necessarily evidence of disordered eating, it can be a warning sign and symptom of such. Interestingly, within the Denison student body, unaffiliated men showed slightly higher rates of restricting than their unaffiliated female counterparts, but were nearly identical to their affiliated male peers. The real correlation between Greek life and calorie restriction shines through when looking at women on campus whose calorie restricting behaviors jumped over 10% with a Greek affiliation.
When asked if their friend restricted calories before drinking, respondents indicated lower rates than restricting in general, which is a good sign that most students are not engaging in the potentially dangerous habit of restricting before drinking. Consistent with general calorie restricting behaviors, men within and outside of the Greek system remained at nearly equivalent rates of restricting before drinking. Unaffiliated women showed higher levels than both the unaffiliated and affiliated men, but the rate of caloric restriction before drinking drastically increased when looking at Greek women. Greek women were twice as likely to report that a friend restricted calories before drinking, signifying a significant difference in social practices separating Greek-affiliated women from the rest of campus.
Since Greek was used as a broad identifier to encompass members of the four councils of Greek Life (IFC, MGC, NPHC, NPC) and includes a range of identities, we broke down calorie restricting behaviors additionally based on self-identified racial identity as well as gender identity. The majority of members in Denison’s Greek system are members of NPC and IFC councils (the largest of the four councils on campus) and are made up predominantly of white students. Therefore, it’s important to further analyse this behavior across racial identities to reflect how different groups on campus report calorie restricting behaviors.
While the identity of the friend was not disclosed, white women indicated the highest rates of a friend restricting calories, which is consistent with the prior information indicating Greek women are more likely to report restriction. Hispanic and Asian women reported very similarly with just under 15% indicating a friend restricts(ed) caloric intake. Black women reported the lowest rates – just 7% of Black women on campus reported their friend restricting calories before drinking. In regards to differences in calorie counting across self-identified racial groups at Denison, our data lacks a comprehensive view of campus as no Black or Hispanic men answered this question.
Eating disorders affect all social groups and systemic inequality within the field of nutritional science and disordered eating treatment has centered a narrative which is not universally applicable as culture and identity contribute to the development and treatment of eating disorders (Beyond “Eating Disorders Don’t Discriminate”). For this reason, this data can not be used to generalize eating disorder demographics on campus or across racial groups and only addresses one potential aspect of disordered eating.
Overall, white women and women within the Greek system indicated the highest prevalence of calorie restrictions and restriction before drinking within their social circles. Perhaps this data says something about societal expectations for women and also about the Greek social group. After examining an aspect of Denison that is central to our experiences and identities, we are left with questions about how, as members of the Greek system, we can help spread awareness about this issue and how we can help individuals navigate the rigorous academic and social expectations here at Denison.
Sarah MacKenzie is a senior Political Science major from Denver, Colorado. You can find her avoiding the “G” word and spending time analyzing the Greek social group on campus.
Siobhán Mitchell is a senior Spanish major who is trying to figure out what to do with her life. Don’t ask her what she plans on doing next year; she doesn’t even know what she’s gonna eat for dinner today. If you have any ideas, she is open to suggestions on either.