The Sin in Thin
How the social life of a college can breed delusion and eating disorders
By Mark Cherrington
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H.L. Mencken, with even more vinegar than usual, once defined love as “the illusion that one woman differs from another.” It seems likely that Associate Professor of Psychology Catherine Sanderson, like any woman, would argue against the quote’s underlying misogyny (and misanthropy, for that matter, since Mencken manages to insult men as dupes, too). But the illusion that one woman differs from another is actually her area of expertise. Sanderson’s research involves the perception of social norms—that is, what we think the Joneses are doing that we’re supposed to keep up with. Her most recent research, starting two years ago with a ground-breaking project at Princeton (where she received her Ph.D. in 1997), deals with one particularly nasty manifestation of norm perception that plays out mostly among young women on college campuses.
For a young woman at any college, the overriding social norm is to be attractive, which these days means to be thin. Primed by advertising and entertainment that glorify willowy women, a first-year student enters college already thinking that thin is in. Typically she’s away from home for the first time, she’s living and eating communally for the first time, unsure how to fit in, and keenly aware of both her own body and those of the women with whom she must compete. In short, she is highly vulnerable. And that’s where the illusion comes in.
In Sanderson’s Princeton research, she found that if you ask any given woman
student to estimate the average weight of other women on campus, she will almost invariably be wrong, and will assume that other women are considerably thinner than she is, when in fact they may be the same size. Moreover, she’ll assume that other women exercise more and are more obsessed with body image and attractiveness than she is, when in fact other women are no more obsessed than she. In and of themselves, those misperceptions might be mere curiosities, but it turns out that our perception of the social norm has an extremely powerful effect on our behavior and can even make us do things that would otherwise seem foolish or wrong. In the case of college women trying to meet the misperceived standard of thinness, the effect can be devastating. One study found that 82 percent of female college students use some form of dieting or food control at least once a day, and 33 percent engage in more extreme behaviors, like inducing vomiting or taking large quantities of laxatives. These behaviors, which do serious damage to women’s health, may, in some cases, evolve into full-blown clinical eating disorders, which can be life-threatening.
Part of the problem is that we tend to base our perception of what’s typical on what is, in fact, ideal (and therefore atypical). “It should be a mathematical equation,”
Sanderson says. “If you want to figure out what women on campus weigh, you should add up all the women’s weights and divide by the number of women.” But, she says, that isn’t what happens: “We look to the people who are the most salient. We see this kind of thing all the time in society. If you think, ‘What is the pro-life view or the pro-choice view,’ what comes to your mind? The people who are out militantly carrying placards and coat hangers. You’re not looking at the average. You look at what’s publicized.” Thus, she says, a young woman tends to look to the most attractive women or even the exceptionally thin cross-country runners as the standard.
The misperception is reinforced, Sanderson says, not only by what students see, but also by what they hear. “You know what you’re supposed to be,” she says. “You know what the right answer is. And you talk about things that fit the right answer. So a woman will say, ‘All I had today is an apple!’ That will be front and center. Or, ‘I did 45 minutes on the Stairmaster today.’ What she doesn’t say is, ‘I ate a whole pizza today.’ Or ‘I haven’t exercised in two weeks.’ You talk about the stuff that fits the norm; you don’t talk about stuff that doesn’t fit the norm.”
Sanderson says that many of the young women she talks to at Amherst describe a phenomenon they call “tray gazing,” by which they mean that every woman in the dining hall
pays careful attention to what other women are eating. That scrutiny, they say, keeps them from eating what they might otherwise want. It’s a variant of the familiar scene of a dating couple in a restaurant, where the woman will order just a salad and Diet Coke while the man orders a large steak and potatoes. “Nobody thinks the woman never eats,” Sanderson says. “But she’s certainly not going to do it in public. There are studies—this is not my research—in which you ask college women how hard would it be for them to go into a drug store and buy a whole bunch of things, including condoms, tampons, pregnancy tests, whatever. Hardest thing for them to buy? Snickers. You can say, ‘I’m having sex, I’m having unprotected sex, etc.’ The hardest thing is a Snickers.”
It isn’t only women who are being manipulated by their perceptions. In one of Sanderson’s follow-up studies (she is active in research and publishes frequently), she found that college men, too, misperceive the norm and see themselves as being different from it. But for men, it’s usually the opposite concern: they think they are smaller than other men, and tend to eat more protein and lift weights in an effort to bulk up to what they think is the norm. The syndrome isn’t as dramatic or dangerous for men and may be a little less widespread, Sanderson says, but the pathology is the same.
The insidious thing about all this is that it is based on a lie. What you think is the norm is not the norm at all, and you are, in fact, already where you want to be—that is, just like everybody else—but you don’t realize it. And in not realizing it, you begin chasing an illusion, which, of course, can never be caught. “That’s the interesting thing,” Sanderson says. “If you’re wrong about the norm [that is, if you are actually in sync with it] but you don’t know that, it has the same consequences as being different from the norm. Being different from the norm and thinking you’re different from the norm have the same consequences.”
Illustration: Mary Ann Smith/Getty Images; Photo: Frank Ward