Students can be seen clutching their kale, acai bowls and Kombucha almost anywhere on campus. Healthy food trends continue to increase in popularity around D.C. and have become a national craze in recent years. But the health trend hasn’t only skyrocketed because of nutritious foods. The success of alternative workout facilities like SoulCycle, which seem to populate every other block in D.C., have also contributed to this phenomenon of healthy living. Even though it’s generally a positive movement, there are overwhelming negative impacts.
The trend has produced a perfectionist atmosphere which, at times, can be more detrimental than productive. This is especially true for college-age students – particularly young women – in their teens and 20s. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard a student say they feel like a cow for having a burger and milkshake from Burger Tap & Shake and not working out that day, or – conversely – that they feel so proud of themselves for only eating a salad from sweetgreen in the last 24 hours. Most students are probably familiar with these kinds of statements on campuses across the country, and as a 19-year-old college female, I’m guilty of saying these things myself, too. This talk is especially relevant to GW, which is populated by ambitious students who hold themselves to high standards in every aspect of their lives. It’s not enough to just get good grades. We also want vibrant social lives, active involvement in our extracurriculars, an internship on the Hill and a perfect body. We want to have it all, and this can lead to an unhealthy level of perfectionism.
But this shouldn’t be how we think about healthy eating and exercise. This type of conversation, where people shame themselves for not sticking to a rigid routine, is harmful because it promotes extreme perfectionism that can lead to eating disorders or other kinds of unhealthy behavior. Being healthy shouldn’t be about shaming ourselves for not working out every day, or priding ourselves for eating a minimum amount of food. We need to work to change the conversation around health and wellness so that it’s more focused on the ways in which it improves our mental and physical strength, rather than how it makes us look in a mirror.
Part of this problem, as it pertains to young people, may have its roots in a generational pressure for perfectionism. According to a recent study from the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin, college students today show higher signs of perfectionism compared to college students during the last three decades. Researchers found that in American, Canadian and British students, self-oriented perfectionism has increased by 10 percent, and socially prescribed perfectionism has increased by 33 percent since 1989. Even though this study wasn’t specifically looking at healthy eating and fitness habits, it translates over. This desire for perfection is often coupled with a goal of an idealistic body image and healthy living habits. The danger of this perfectionist mindset is that it can easily lead to obsessive behavior like spending all your time exercising. According to a study from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, around 39 to 48 percent of people suffering from eating disorders also develop an addiction to exercising.
There’s not an easy way to change how we talk about healthy eating and exercise, especially because the statements I’ve discussed have become so second nature that most people don’t think twice about the implications. But there are ways we can talk about being healthy in a more positive way, and if the conversation changes, actions will likely follow.
The key is changing our perception of what it means to be healthy, which will influence the way we talk about it. For example, we shouldn’t think of the gym as the place we go to just burn off calories. Working out should be generally enjoyable and produce a feeling of accomplishment and strength. It also builds mental stamina and has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression, according to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. If we make an effort to leave a workout thinking, “I feel stronger,” instead of “I feel thin,” then it will shift the focus from how many calories we’ve burned to what we’ve done to improve our physical and mental strength. In addition to lessening the incentive to become overly concerned with calorie counting, this will give us a real sense of accomplishment rather than the feeling of inching toward an unhealthily perfectionist goal.
As we all strive to live a healthier lifestyle, we need to work on understanding that our motivations are just as important as the results of our efforts. It’s okay to weigh yourself every once in a while to check your progress, but being healthy should not only be about dropping a specific number of pounds. We need to reinforce that mental and physical strength – not societal beauty standards – are the most important outcomes of being healthy. It’s time to start changing the culture, but that won’t happen over night. The more we work on changing our mentality about what it means to be healthy, the more it will be reflected in the way we speak about it.
Natalie Prieb, a sophomore majoring in English and creative writing, is a Hatchet columnist.
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