Eating Habits and Body Image
Smith College women figure prominently in
two recent studies on body image and eating habits. One study focused
on college women 70 to 100 years ago; the other, on contemporary students.
For more than 50 years, from the late 19th
century into the 20th century, the debate over woman's place in
higher education was framed almost exclusively in terms of
her body and her health. The "college girl" tested new ideas
about feminine beauty, sexuality and athleticism. A new book, Looking
Good: College Women
and Body Image, 1875–1930, Johns Hopkins University Press, by historian
Margaret Lowe, explores the cultural concern with body image.
Lowe focuses on three schools: Cornell University, and Spelman and Smith
She did extensive research in each institutions' archives, examining
student diaries, letters, yearbooks, scrapbooks and institutional
Lowe found that college women some 100 years
ago viewed food as a source of physical and emotional satisfaction
and as sustenance to
be enjoyed and shared. A weight
gain, while attending college, was deemed beneficial and a sign of a good health.
Weight loss, on the other hand, signaled trouble.
A concern with body image
continues to resonate on college campuses today and reflects
issues of self-esteem, dieting and eating disorders, and the
sexual double-standards found in contemporary culture.
In another study,
Catherine Sanders, assistant professor of psychology at
Amherst College, surveyed 101 women at Smith and Amherst colleges about
ideal body size and eating habits. She found that women at co-ed schools
who eat with male peers often inaccurately perceive other college women
than themselves and are more likely to display signs of eating disorders.
Women at single-sex schools are not as likely to develop disorders or underestimate
the height and weight of their peers, nor do they overestimate their own
size. She presented her findings to the Society for Personality and Social
Psychology in spring 2003.