Beyond the dining hall: eating, body image and student mental health

Illustration+by+Malini+Basu+%2721.

Illustration by Malini Basu ’21.

Julia Bintz and Grace Ellsworth

Content Warning: Please be advised, this article discusses eating disorders, anxiety and depression.

Gabi Isaac Herzog ’22 has wrestled with disordered eating since high school. After coming to college, periods of anxiety and depression heightened her challenges with food and she reached a low point during the spring of her freshman year. 

“I cried in Cafe Mac constantly because I would just sit there, feeling self-conscious and feeling so dissociated from my body that I didn’t know — I couldn’t even think how to get up and go get food,” Isaac Herzog said. 

For Macalester students, challenging relationships with food and body are not uncommon. In their biennial administration of the National College Health Assessment, the Laurie Hamre Center for Health and Wellness collected data on bulimia and anorexia diagnosis and treatment, how students describe their weight and if students manipulate their weight. Few students recorded diagnoses and treatments for bulimia or anorexia. Many more, however, were cognizant of weight. Over half of respondents reported some behavior to control weight; 27.8% were trying to keep their weight the same, 5.2% were trying to increase weight and 39.7% of students were trying to lose weight. 

Dr. Steph Walters, Medical Director of the Laurie Hamre Center, previously practiced as a physician at a University of Minnesota eating disorder clinic that has since turned its focus to research. At Macalester, she works to distinguish the reality of challenging relationships with food from the stereotypical idea of what disordered eating looks like. 

“Sometimes [students will say] ‘my coach, or my roommate, or my partner, or my friend told me, I should make this appointment, but I don’t have an eating disorder, because…’ and then they’ll list physical things — don’t use laxatives, haven’t lost any weight,” Walters said. “But what I’m most concerned about is how much brain space does this take up for you? How is this impacting your life?” 

Eating in Cafe Mac

Cafe Mac added to Isaac Herzog’s challenges with food and anxiety. In previous years, when both first years and sophomores lived on campus, Cafe Mac was the primary dining spot for on-campus and off-campus students with a meal plan. Students couldn’t take food to-go and the cafeteria was crowded during peak meal times. When Isaac Herzog arrived on campus for orientation, she remembers feeling overwhelmed by the chaos in Cafe Mac. 

“I was like, ‘I don’t know what the formal and informal rules of this space [are],’” Isaac Herzog recalled. “When you’re thinking about that kind of stuff, how can you possibly calm down enough to tune in with your body and think, ‘what do I want to eat right now?’”

Even after orientation, the large crowds of Cafe Mac could be stressful and overwhelming. 

“You’re constantly seeing people you know and recognizing people from your classes,” Isaac Herzog said. “You lose that anonymity, and sometimes anonymity can feel good when you’re doing something vulnerable, like eating a meal.” 

Elise Sexton ’23 arrived at Macalester grappling with a history of disordered eating she attributes to her family’s approach to food. For Sexton too, eating at Cafe Mac was often uncomfortable. 

“It was very hard to feel perceived by a lot of people,” Sexton said. “It felt like I couldn’t eat without being watched and being judged by other people.” 

For Sexton, a vegetarian, Cafe Mac lacked meals which fit her dietary restrictions, making it challenging for her to maintain a positive relationship with food. She would often repeat the same meal and sometimes found that dishes she thought were plant-based had been prepared with meat. 

“There were days when I had scanned into Cafe Mac, walked around and then just immediately left because there was no food that was good,” Sexton said. “It really was that intersection between [a] difficult relationship with food and not having a huge amount of vegetarian options that made eating there really difficult.”

The Grille, Scotty’s, the Atrium and the Loch are all dining alternatives to Cafe Mac which offer sandwiches or bowls to-go, but they aren’t perfect solutions either. Sexton finds the Grille lacks vegetarian options while the Loch gets repetitive. For Isaac Herzog, walking across campus to a spot like Scotties in the Leonard Center was difficult when her depression made movement hard. 

“I was just really jealous of my friends who were at other schools and had bigger dining halls and calmer dining halls that they could go to,” Isaac Herzog said. 

A culture around food 

Jessica, a first year student who preferred to go by a pseudonym, is a dancer. She found that growing up, her community of fellow dancers often had an unhealthy perspective on food. Jessica said that, in comparison, Macalester’s attitude towards food is a welcome change. 

“[At Macalester] people aren’t actively counting calories together being like ‘ok I can’t eat this, we can’t eat this guys, cheat meal,’” Jessica said. “I feel like the more I give in to the culture with food here the more relaxed I am with food.”

But when Sexton first arrived at Macalester, she heard students perpetuate ideas of “bad” and “good” foods and that it was common for students to joke about skipping meals.

“I remember sitting in my floor lounge and having people talk about, ‘oh my God I’ve gained so much weight eating Cafe Mac’ and other people say, ‘no I’ve lost like 30 pounds since I’ve been here ’cause the food is just so bad that I’m just not eating,’” Sexton said. “Both of those situations [were] just kind of laughed off as like, ‘oh, that’s college.’”

Macalester has initiated some discussions about food and bodies. Walters talks to Macalester’s sports teams about relationships to food and athletic performance and helped run a fat-positivity event in a previous year. This year, there hasn’t been a well-advertised effort from any Macalester service to address body image or eating. 

“I would feel like normally in a year I’d be able to name like four or five [advocacy efforts] that me or my direct colleagues were involved in,’”  Walters said. “I really hope we can recommit to it next year.”

Zoey ’24, another student that wished to be referred to by a pseudonym, said she sometimes limits what she’s eating or is ashamed of eating. 

“It’s kind of like a don’t-ask-don’t-tell with myself,” Zoey said. “Logically I know that it’s not the best: my food habits of eating less food or limiting my food intake to attain a certain physique that I view to be [socially] appropriate and attractive” 

She said she knows that how her family treats food, being a woman, and wanting control over uncertainty impacts how she eats. Although thinking about how people view her exacerbates her struggle, she said she has noticed her friends want her to be healthy and check in.

“People comment on [how I eat] more here because people are more involved in my life and are much more attuned to what I’m doing,” Zoey said. “I think the fact that I have friends who are like, ‘come to dinner’ means there’s a little bit of social pressure to break my habits.”

While Zoey hasn’t turned to on-campus resources for help, said she would welcome messaging and events about body image or eating. She suggested adding articles or Zoom links in the Mac Daily.

“I think having some of those resources… would be nice…  just to have it available where I can trick my brain a little bit into being like ‘this is right here in front of me, read it!’” Zoey said.  

The transition to off-campus living 

This year Sexton has been taking classes from an off-campus house where she buys and prepares all her own meals. Sexton said that navigating newfound control over her meals has included “coming to terms” with her relationship to food. 

“The awareness of the fact that my relationship with food was not normal and my desire to actively try to change that, I think [that’s happened] within the past year,” Sexton said. 

During one of her first times going grocery shopping with her house, her housemates asked her to get dairy products. Sexton said that she began to re-evaluate long-held associations of food into “bad” and “good” categories. 

“I had these answers that were just reflexive,” she said. “No, I don’t want cheese. No, I don’t want yogurt. No, I don’t want to get 2% milk. It was like, ok, why? It was because they are bad foods.” 

Sexton said that her partner, Erin Leary ’23, who she lives with, has helped her reconsider her mentality around eating. Leary wrestled with disordered eating throughout adolescence. In college, they have made a conscious effort to maintain a positive relationship with food and body by making sure they don’t skip meals, finding joy in movement through Crossfit and focusing on building a habit of intuitive eating. 

Leary said that being able to control their meals since living off campus has been mostly helpful in maintaining a positive relationship with eating. Coming from a family with many dietary restrictions, they said that being able to make their own choices when grocery shopping has been freeing, but that organizing meals is not always easy. 

“There’s still that voice in the back of my head that’s like you’re eating too much, stop buying these, just eat vegetables,” Leary said. “You need to think about food so much… [it’s] hard when I just don’t want to think about food for a day but I can’t, because otherwise I won’t eat.” 

Resources for students 

The Laurie Hamre Center offers individualized counseling care and referrals to specialist organizations for students struggling with food, health and their bodies. 

Liz Schneider Bateman, Director of Counseling at the Hamre Center, wrote in an email to the Mac Weekly that challenges with food can look different for everyone. Counseling services offers support for both students who have a history of diagnosed eating disorders as well as those who are evaluating their relationships with food, health and their bodies for the first time. 

“Counseling can be a place to begin exploring your relationship with food in a supported environment – exploring values, culture, beliefs, and feelings associated with food, eating, and your body and how that impacts your day to day experience,” Schneider Bateman wrote. 

Dr. Hoinu Bunce is a part-time counselor with the Hamre Center who previously worked as a psychologist with the Emily Program, an eating disorder treatment organization in the Twin Cities. She works one-on-one with students on eating challenges, offering referrals only when they want to seek outside help and encouraging students to lose the stigma surrounding seeking care. 

“It’s just very hard, wanting to address it, and then being really scared to address it,” Bunce said. 

Walters also serves students wrestling with eating challenges through her work on the medical side of the Hamre Center. She said that she refers students to outside resources when she sees that expert care might be the most helpful for a student. 

“I feel very proud and capable that our medical team can partner with experts if needed, refer when they want to be referred,” Walters said. We don’t want to abandon you and we still want to be part of your care.”

The Laurie Hamre Center refers students to resources including The Emily Program and The Melrose Center. Both services offer non-intensive outpatient care, day treatment and residential care. 

Jack ’24, who preferred to go by a pseudonym, navigates a complicated relationship to food and his body. He said he’s trying to break body image cycles that started in 8th grade. According to Jack, social factors like meeting new people and his dating life greatly influence his relationship to food. Jack said he finds talking to people about food stressful, even if it’s a medical or mental health provider.

“I feel like if I tell somebody then they’re just going to be hyper focused on if I’m eating or what am I eating,” Jack said. “I just don’t want people to see or judge or criticize it in some way even if it’s for my benefit.” 

Despite his worries about disclosing his relationship with food to people, Jack sought out a counselor with the Laurie Hamre Center and found it helpful. 

Other students, such as Isaac Herzog, Sexton, Leary and Zoey were not aware of any resources available for students specifically for eating challenges. 

“I have not used any resources, mostly because off the top of my head I cannot think of a single one,” Sexton said. “If they exist, which I assume they do, they’re not well advertised.”

While Sexton said she hopes to improve her relationship with food, acknowledging her habits and changing her mentality are two separate things. 

“Awareness that my relationship with food isn’t healthy is not enough to fix it,” Sexton said. 

In her daily life, Sexton said that putting her eating goals into practice doesn’t always come naturally. 

“Every single time we go grocery shopping it is still a struggle for me to buy any amount of food that is in bulk,” Sexton said. “I still have days when I need my partner or somebody else in the house to just cook a meal and I will eat it no matter what it is — I just can’t think, I can’t pick the food. I still struggle with that every day. It’s still hard.” 

Health Resources

National Eating Disorders Association Helpline 1-800-931-2237

24-hour crisis line: text “NEDA” to 741741

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)