All of us are born knowing when and what to eat. If we can't get a particular food, we remain hungry and keep seeking until we find the food that satisfies us. This is called "survival eating". We are not concerned about body size and shape, just that we have enough of what we need. This inate knowledge has been demonstrated in children until they reach the age of four or so. Then the social norms start interfering with their ability to trust their bodies. They learn to regulate hunger by the clock and learn which foods they should be hungry for:
"What do you mean you're hungry? It's only 4:00."
We learn that appetite can be ruined by wanting certain foods.
"You can't have a cookie, it will spoil your appetite for dinner."
We learn that someone else knows more about what our bodies need than we do.
"What do you mean you're full? You haven't finished your dinner."
This constant barrage of information, which is meant to teach us social norms about eating, also teaches us to distrust our body's knowledge of needs and wants. In addition, our culture encourages a moral interpretation of body shape and size that adds more trauma and confusion to our knowledge of self and body.
We have learned to:
The underlying assumption of the symbolic meaning of body shape and size is that you need to try to change your body shape and size to demonstrate your morals and character ethics, in spite of genetics, nutritional needs and environmental factors that are not always within your control. This assumption is based on the belief that body weight is only a function of how much you eat and exercise, regardless of the multitude of other medical, genetic and environmental reasons for why you weigh and look the size and shape you do.
College is a challenging time for students in regards to eating behavior, body image and exercise. Many college students experiment with food choices and amounts, exercise and some disruptive weight control techniques. This may be the first time for students to live with minimal supervision, where they feel free to act out on impulse or follow what their peers are doing. Students may spend hours in the weight room, trying to achieve a certain body type, or trying various types of purging after a late night social eating spree. For most of these students, after awhile, they realize that they don't want that body and the effort it takes, or that vomiting, using laxatives, diuretics or restrictive eating are not the kind of behaviors they want to keep doing. While they feel it would be great to look a certain way, they realize that their body has its own shape and size and they can accept it. For these students, experimentation does not exacerbate or create issues about their body size and shape or food choices.
However, there are college students who are more vulnerable to these kinds of disruptive behaviors and beliefs. The American culture places tremendous emphasis on thinness and perfection and these students are unable to keep or achieve a balanced perspective between their health, body image and college experience. These students are in need of some means to provide control and structure in their college experience and food or body size and shape becomes their focus of control. These students can be perfectionists, high-achievers, wanting and doing their best in their classes, relationships and extracurricular activities. These students may already have an existing eating disorder or they begin to experiment and are not able to stop or recognize the danger in continuing these disruptive behaviors.
The following list of signs can indicate when students' beliefs and behaviors about food or body size and shape are interfering with their quality of life.