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Studying 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 colleges. She did extensive research in each institutions' archives, examining student diaries, letters, yearbooks, scrapbooks and institutional records.

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 issues surrounding 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 as thinner 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 body size. She presented her findings to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in spring 2003.

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