Content warning: This article contains references to disordered eating.
The holiday season has always left me feeling uneasy. Returning home can often be tense, so I decided that this year, I would make winter break stress-free by focusing solely on baking and listening to “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on repeat. But something changed once the holidays went into full swing. It was normal, at first: my extended family gathered around the dinner table, discussions weaving delicately around contentious topics as we settled into the familiar grooves of COVID-19 holiday gatherings. After months spent apart—whether because of travel restrictions or out of caution—conversation flowed readily. But as I looked down at my plate, gently shuffling around food with my fork, I was reminded of why the holidays weren’t always as colorful as the Christmas songs I listened to year-round.
Food has always played a tricky role in my life, particularly when it came to reconciling contradictory cultural expectations. Food—perhaps more so than anything else—provides both social and corporeal sustenance, and a meal is just as much a catalyst for community as it is a functional necessity. The local Asian grocery stores and dim sum restaurants of my youth were predominantly immigrant enclaves where I found myself most at peace. These spaces act as an anchoring force for diasporic communities: It’s a space to reconnect when we celebrate, to heal us when we mourn. For me, these spaces have often been a place of familiarity and comfort.
Discussions surrounding eating, however, have occasionally felt like a battlefield. The act of casually commenting on weight or eating habits is something that has been embedded into my upbringing, as natural as saying hello. I remember the first time I was worried about being too thin and the first time I worried about not being thin enough, all while recalling vivid memories of relatives clucking their tongues and letting their gaze fall onto someone’s midsection.
In college, I thought I’d found an escape from the pressures of food. I never expected them to follow me around. While college can transport us from stressful home environments, the eating culture at UChicago can be equally difficult to navigate. The promise of fierce independence that comes with being a college student allows us to create and sustain unhealthy relationships with food. When a university like UChicago prides itself on its pressure-cooker culture, it often leaves little room to confront these truths. Rather than neglecting conversations around eating, we should approach the subject in a more careful and conscious way.
As a first-year, I learned that eating was a solitary activity. This particular chapter of my life was defined by to-go boxes and empty dining halls: The act of getting a meal consisted of leaving my dorm room, going to the dining hall, and heading back inside. As I became comfortable with this routine, meals turned into less of a priority. Three meals a day became two, and in some cases, two meals became one. At first, I convinced myself that I was too busy with schoolwork to eat. I would swap dinner for a packet of instant ramen I brought from home or an apple I picked up the day before. Conflicting thoughts about my weight hung over me like a low-grade fever. Gradually, I became anxious at the mere thought of even entering a dining hall, regardless of whether I was alone or not.
I noticed the frequent comments I made about how little food I ate and the guilt that festered whenever I had three meals a day. Despite worrying constantly about contracting COVID-19 and taking substantial precautions to look after my health, there was irony in the fact that I didn’t care if I stripped my body of nutrients. My warped understanding of food taught me that eating less meant I would look healthier.
Without structure in my life, the act of eating quickly became sporadic. It didn’t really matter what time it was or what kind of food I ate. The excitement of food-centered social activities—fourth meal, dinners hosted by Resident Heads, surprise dorm trips to Chinatown—waned as I struggled to navigate my relationship with eating. I lost sight of eating meals as something that I looked forward to; instead, it was just something I needed to do occasionally to get through the day.
During these first months of my on-campus experience, I observed a facet of college culture that not many people spoke about: the art of casually mentioning diets, studying through mealtimes, staying inside when you didn’t have people to go with for Saturday night meal swipes. I would linger a little longer at the food stations in Baker, questioning whether I really needed a second helping of food. I would spend more time picking myself apart in the mirror, anxious about gaining the freshman fifteen. On my flights back home, I’d wonder whether or not my family would notice—or worse, mention—any changes in my physical appearance.
What college is, when it comes down to it, is a place for you to arrive at classrooms, meet deadlines, and adhere to a schedule. Go in, go out: It’s entirely transitory. But the rest of your college experience is up to you: friend groups, recognized student organizations, downtime. We’re left in these liminal spaces where the structure of college dissolves, where getting food isn’t a deadline or an expectation but a choice. Being a college student is often about having a sense of self-control, something that is heightened by living within the incubator environment of our campuses. My struggle with eating, however, didn’t fit into the narrative of a quick-fix solution—its roots were much deeper than I was willing to admit. When I lost the structure of the college experience, my will to maintain healthy habits crumbled with it.
It’s no doubt that this topic can certainly be uncomfortable to confront, both by yourself and when in social settings. Eating also looks different for everyone: Anxieties regarding accessibility to food, dietary restrictions, and disordered eating are lived realities across many campuses. Leaning on our community can be instrumental in dismantling these structural stigmas. The dialogue surrounding food is shaped by students: Being vocal about these experiences offers opportunities for support and education. It can be cathartic to unearth these internal struggles and allow them to evolve into something new or to untangle our thoughts by simply starting a conversation. Student Wellness is another resource to contact regarding eating concerns; they offer individualized recommendations to students who may want to reach out for support.
The picture of health and contentment that I sought wasn’t rooted in an actual desire to be healthier, as much as I wanted it to be. In the rare moments where I was honest with myself, I knew that it wasn’t about gaining strength or boosting endorphins: Instead, I thought about being skinnier, prettier. I imagined my body as a fictional object, a prototype to promote thin waists and a visible collarbone. Beneath my veneer of composure was a paralyzing fear of losing control. It’s what I thought about each time I skipped a meal and weighed myself on a scale; it’s what I thought about when New Year's Day arrived, and the first thing I saw on my phone that morning was an advertisement for a glossy new weight-loss program.
It’s not easy to change this mindset, but I’m going into this year trying to reshape my relationship with food in a way that empowers rather than destructs. We should hold each other more accountable to check in on our friends, peers, and people we don’t even know to make sure that our community can thrive in a space where health is a priority. Taking this first step is necessary.
Rachel Ong is a second-year in the College.