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The Meaning Behind the Eating Habits of Women at Albion College
a soc. 101 research assignment in progress. perhaps it is somewhat interesting.

There has been much debate about why eating disorders are so prevalent in high school and college students, particularly in the female population. It has been observed that females often develop eating disorders and obsessions with weight during their first year in college; however, there has not been a definitive conclusion as to why this is true. Although my study is not focused on eating disorders, it is intended to determine how female college freshmen change their eating habits after entering a college environment, what factors influence these changes, and how they feel about their current body image.

When researching the eating habits of women and the pressures they have to obtain and maintain an ideal weight, I found that college women are often unsatisfied with their bodies, and they are often influenced by media images that portray the ideal woman as very thin. Other research data also suggest that women concentrate on their weight because they assume men prefer thin women. Due to pressures the media puts on women to be thin, it has been found that although women can adequately determine the weight of other individuals, they often underestimate their own weight. However, even women that underestimate their weight and are of a normal weight often classify themselves as overweight and are not pleased with their bodies. Collaborative evidence supports the fact that college women are under the impression that the ideal body is much thinner than their own, and many think very underweight females seen in magazines best represent the ideal body weight.

When conducting my research on the eating habits and the perceived body image of college females, I used the interview method, and I interviewed freshman women living in the Wesley dormitory at Albion College. Since I wanted the women to be comfortable and honest, I interviewed each of them individually in their own rooms. I also wanted to interview women of different weight categories (underweight, average, and overweight), which I thought might be a factor that determines how they feel about their bodies and what they eat, so I interviewed three women from each weight category. Although I thought that all of the weight categories would be concerned about their body weight and feel pressures to be thin, I wanted to know if women of different weights felt different pressures and if their perceived body image influenced their eating habits.

When doing my research, I discovered that overweight women are more likely to feel concerned about their body weight, and they are also more likely to feel pressures from peers and the media to become thin. I also found that overweight individuals are more likely to eat more, mainly in the form of snacks, than other females, while underweight individuals are more likely to eat less in college than they did at home. Furthermore, the overweight women that are concerned about their body weight and tended to eat more in college are more likely to have a fluctuating body weight when compared to the women that are either underweight or average.

During the interviews, two of the three overweight women admitted that they felt pressure to be thin. One of the interviewees said that the concentration of thin bodies seen on TV and the thin mannequins in department stores often make her feel insecure and uncomfortable. She stated, “I feel pressures only when I watch TV or go to the mall.” She went on to say, “When I go to the mall, I feel fat.” When I asked if the second interviewee felt any pressure to maintain or obtain an ideal body weight, she said, “Yeah, a little… but not really.” She went on to explain that in high school she felt pressure from her soccer coach to loose weight, and she also feels some pressure to “look good for boys.” Both of the overweight females answered, “Not really,” when asked if they felt comfortable with their current body weight. The third interviewee said that she did not feel any pressure to lose weight and she felt comfortable with her current body weight.

Although only two of the overweight individuals admitted that they were displeased with their body weight and felt pressures to change, they were less confident with their body image than the other groups. From the group of women with an ideal body weight for their height, only one admitted that she felt any pressure to stay thin. She said she felt she had to “live up to what they look like,” when discussing females seen in the media. She also said that she had to compete with her peers and be the “thinnest one.” However, although she felt a lot of anxiety about her weight, she said she was content with her current body weight, possibly because she is currently 125 lbs (20 lbs lighter than her highest weight since puberty) and only feels pressure to maintain her current body weight. The other two women of average weight felt less pressure to be thin. One felt no pressure from peers or the media, and the other only felt pressure on her self to eat healthy foods. She also made it clear that she concentrates on staying healthy instead of thin. Both of the women were also content with their current body weight.

Out of the underweight individuals, all three of them were comfortable with their current body weight, and none of them felt any pressures from peers or the media. One of the females admitted that she didn’t want to gain the “freshman fifteen,” but she also said that she was “generally happy” with her current body weight. Another said that she realized that she was underweight, and she even joked about how her boyfriend tells her that she should gain five pounds. The third interviewee gave an enthusiastic “Yeah!” when asked if she was happy with her current body weight.

Even though the overweight women were the most displeased with their body, they were more likely to eat more while in college as compared to home, and they were more likely to have a fluctuating body weight. In fact, the three overweight women felt uncomfortable when asked their current body weight and their highest weight since puberty. All of them had to guess their current body weight because of their uncertainty, and the trend of hesitancy and uncertainty was only seen in the overweight individuals. The overweight women had weights fluctuations of 10 to 50 lbs, while women of average weight fluctuated between 10 and 20 lbs, and the weight fluctuation of underweight women was between 6 and 15 lbs.

The amount of weight fluctuation can be explained by the current and past eating habits of the interviewees. Out of the underweight group, all three of them said they ate healthy and nutritious foods while living at home. Two ate three meals a day, a light breakfast, followed by a light lunch, and a home cooked dinner. Now both of them eat fewer meals and eat more snacks. The other interviewee followed the same schedule, except she often skipped lunch; currently, she eats less than she did at home. All three of the interviewees said they eat fewer meals because they often do not feel like going to Baldwin, a cafeteria that is notorious for unhealthy food.

Out of the women of average weight, one interviewee claimed to eat the same amount of food than at home, one claimed to eat the same number of meals but more snacks, and the other claimed to eat less than she did at home. All of these individuals either weigh less than their highest weight since puberty or have remained at a constant weight.

The overweight women ate more than the underweight and average women while at home. Although one interviewee said that she often skipped breakfast, all three of them snacked daily. While in college, they have began to eat more food than they did while at home. The interviewee that used to skip breakfast now eats breakfast regularly, and she said that she snacks more. Her mom often sends brownies and cookies, and she snacks on chocolate, pop, and chips while in her room. Another claimed that now she drinks more milk and eats more protein because it makes her “feel better”. She also said that she eats more because of the “convenience” of Baldwin. The third interviewee said that she eats more during meals and also snacks before bed, typically a package of Ramen noodles.

Overall, even though my data are not as decisive as other studies that suggest that there college females feel pressures to be thin and are concerned about their body weight, my data suggest that overweight college females are often pressured to lose weight, and they are dissatisfied with their current body weight. There is a great emphasis on getting thin and staying thin in the college environment, and thinness can be seen as a way to guarantee a high social status. If a female is thin, she feels less pressure to fit the ideal female vision that is often portrayed by the media, and since individuals in the media are seen as successful, there is an implication that overweight women are less successful and should diet and become thin.

The idea of dieting to become more attractive can also explain why there is so much fluctuation in the weights of overweight women. While average and underweight women seem to have a steady diet, overweight women might feel pressure to get thin as soon as possible. The urge to become thin can lead to unsuccessful crash dieting and low self esteem, which can lead to overeating.

Furthermore, being thin also allows females to be more attractive to men and wear fashionable clothing. Although clothing and fashion may look insignificant at the surface, brand names and style ensure status because only those with enough money and resources to buy them can wear them, and unfortunately popular styles are often made in small sizes for thin people. In short, thin women can pull off the image of success more easily, and overweight individuals are left with less fashionable attire, which might explain why one of my interviewees felt “fat” while shopping at the mall. The implication that overweight women are less than perfect and less attractive because of their weight can perpetuate any anxiety they feel to become thin.

This study suggests that overweight women feel more pressure and anxiety to obtain a thin and ideal body image while in college than underweight and average women, and they are also more likely to begin eating more while at college, possibly because they are unable to create their own healthy eating habits after leaving their home environment. Further research could help determine why some women are able to develop a healthy eating pattern and are comfortable with their body weight, while some cannot. A possible correlation could be family structure and family income. Since healthy foods are often more expensive, it is possible that lower class families might rely on junk food and their diets could lack enough nutrition to maintain an ideal body weight. Also, if a child grows up with two parents that work fulltime or a single parent, the child might not get nutritious meals that require preparation time, but more research would have to be done to determine if family income or structure is a relevant indicator of how eating habits develop amongst college students.

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