College is challenging. This statement seems obtrusively simple and at the same time absolutely accurate. Being in an environment that is supposed to dictate the course of your professional life for years to come is a scary prospect, so yes, college is challenging. When suddenly pressures to succeed, to network, to get good grades, to become enthralled in extracurricular activities, to found a start-up for crying out loud(!), become painstakingly apparent, it seems as though maladies like anxiety, depression and distorted relationships to food and body image become the unfortunate norm.
Navigating food as a student is challenging. When I was in seventh grade, I remember feeling as though somehow I was different from my peers. Just a little too tall, my shoulders a little too wide, my face rounder than the angular lines of my female counterparts. I stood out and it made me feel uncomfortable. I remember hating the feeling of my belt cinched around my waist; it was an unspoken rule I had created that I needed a tank top underneath my shirt (always), carefully tucked into my jeans to avoid the sensation of my bare belly pressed against the waistline of my pants. It feels strange to rewind the clock so many years and identify the point in which I remember inspiring such a distaste for my own body. I suddenly couldn’t fathom looking at my own skin and feeling any emotions associated with love, and for years I continued on this painful trajectory of self-loathing.
When I got rejected from nearly every college l I applied to out of high school, familiar feelings of self-deprecation began crawling back into the forefront of my periphery. Having struggled to stay afloat when it came to body positivity, through high school I found my way to a peace that was only temporary. Oscillating between various fad diets disguised as new ways of healthy eating, I still very much believed that certain foods should be avoided at all costs, that eating “clean” was the way towards health and longevity, that being “healthy” was something I could control. I think more importantly, I believed that if I didn’t prescribe to the label of being “the healthy one,” my self-worth would suddenly become devalued, that along with not being granted admission into the various institutions I was applying to, I would amount to nothing.
After two years at my local community college, I found my way into The University of California, Berkeley. Need-less to say, my college experience was anything but “typical.” Having frequented the party scene as a freshman and sophomore, by the time I got to a “proper” college, it felt like I had served my time with gross amounts of booze on the weekends and felt like it was time to move on and grow up. But looking yet again at my peers, this time in college, I still felt different. I wasn’t invited to the sorority parties that seemed to be populated with the heteronormative, conventionally attractive, more than not, thin girls chanting the same songs over and over again during what we call, “rush week.” As a young woman who’s battled disordered eating, it feels so easy to compare my choices, my clothing, my personality, and even my grades to those around me. So upon my arrival at CAL, I asked myself why I didn’t feel like I was one of them. Was I the one who was flawed? Was I not good enough to be a part of that group? I’ve always been vulnerable to this nasty comparison, and in a space dominated by what feels like a chase to the top, it’s easy to revert to mechanisms of control that can become really dangerous.
Food becomes a way to make the complicated things in life, uncomplicated. And as a college student, alcohol can also situate itself uncomfortably in this equation too. But by choosing one way of eating, whether that be fasting until noon or refusing anything that’s been cooked, using a prescription to covertly control an aspect of your life when it feels like the rest is falling to pieces can feel safe. And I get that! I was there too.
College is a time to experiment, so they say. And while I love this principal, college is also a time to be okay with not knowing. It’s even ok not to experiment. College most importantly is a time to ask for help. It’s a time to embrace the softer edges of your stomach and not feel pressure to eat in a way that’s dictated by the angry voices in your mind. It’s a time to connect with friends and sit down to a pizza, and preferably one that’s not cauliflower based. College is a time to not be afraid of helping yourself to seconds at dinner, and to try really hard to chill out when it comes to submitting that final paper.
Nutrition is nuanced, it exists in a space dominated by various shades of grey, and the second we begin attributing labels, rules and restrictions to the ways in which we fuel our bodies, our bodies will resist. Like what we learn(ed) in our lectures, the more we develop good study habits, chances are the better our grades will be in the end. The more we practice listening to our internal hunger cues, what we’re trulycraving, the more at peace we’ll find food becomes and the more headspace it’ll clear up to focus on all the things that make life so much more delicious. And I also guarantee the more satisfaction will manifest as well.
College is complicated. Food doesn’t have to be. Perhaps you’re remembering your college days, the typical anecdotes I’m so often greeted with from friends who’ve graduated being, “I lived off top ramen and black coffee.” And while I appreciate those somewhat cliché stories of being penniless and exhausted, it’s also ok to not have that experience too. It’s okay to buy fresh produce, and it’s okay to drink caramel lattes. It’s okay to eat loaded burritos as much as it’s okay to order a salad at dinner. So long as we’re honoring our intuition and trusting that our bodies know what’s right, it’ll all be ok. We’ll find our way through the mess that is university, we’ll find our way through the mess that is landing that first job, and hopefully we’ll do so loving the way we feel in our jeans and embracing the sweat stains saturating our t-shirts because to do so recognizes that we’re human and we’re brilliant for it.