Val’s Body Is Beautiful

"Joe Pesci," one of Val's many dinner offerings. "Joe Pesci," one of Val's many dinner offerings.
"Joe Pesci," one of Val's many dinner offerings.
“Joe Pesci,” one of Val’s many popular dinner menu items.

(Ryan Arnold)– [Trigger Warning: eating disorders]

Last week, Val officially launched the good ship “Grab-N-Go”, which made its maiden voyage in the fall. From what I can tell it has been thus far successful – students are grabbing and going, the sandwiches haven’t killed anyone, and people seem to appreciate the convenience afforded them by the diversity of options (we love the shit out of diversity at Amherst). Last week was also two other things: National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which was mirrored here on campus by our own “My Body Is Beautiful” programming. The confluence of these three things gives us a chance to look at our relationship with food, and investigate the way that the institution that feeds us instructs our eating.

One way to start this discussion is by taking an inventory of what we’ve got. We’ve got Val, cast in this comedy as the idiosyncratic and haplessly well-intentioned boss who, despite a heart of gold, is fundamentally unable to meet the needs of the employees (Val is Michael Scott). Regardless of personal opinions about the tortured carnival of suffering that is the bi-weekly “Chili Festival”, Val is clearly trying to create varied menus that are both engaging and didactic to students (for example, I never knew that so many things could be called “chili”). However, Val’s fundamental failure is its size – we’ve outgrown it. Val can no longer meet the demands placed on it by the campus population.

Some of you are probably saying, “Fuck you, Ryan, I love Chili Festival. This is how we eat in my native home, the beautiful island of Chilitopia – Val’s diverse world cuisine accommodates me. If you don’t like it, don’t eat it.” Fine. Let’s have a look at the alternatives: in addition to the “Traditional” offering, there is also the “Lighter Side” – typically grilled chicken, steamed vegetables, and whole wheat pasta; the Salad/Sandwich bar, which sometimes has locally-grown produce (awesome!); further, you can eat yourself to death on Lucky Charms. By no means is anyone conscripted into eating anything they don’t want.

We constantly receive active and passive messaging from culture about how, when, and what we should eat – on campus, these come from the hours of dining hall operation, the wait times attached to different food options, the availability of menu items based on demand, and so on. “Grab-N-Go” complicates an already problematic set of signals – when a student grabs and goes, she or he may not subsequently swipe into Val; the reverse is also true. The hope, as I understand it, as the system for food provision is expanded, it will relieve some of the pressure that has been placed on Val’s inadequately sized kitchen. However, that these two options are mutually exclusive sends a pretty clear message to students about how much they ought to eat – that to eat more than what has been deemed an “appropriate serving size” is to over-consume and thus burden the school’s already-strained resources.

I hope to not be misunderstood about this – I don’t blame Val. I like Val. The food at Val is a lot better than other schools I have been to, and I think our Dining Services is genuinely aware of the responsibility they have to the community they serve: to take care of us. However, I think that as citizens of an age where disordered eating and distorted perceptions of weight are so brutally epidemic – an age where the stakes are as high as these – we in turn have a responsibility to challenge our right to eat when, what, and how we want, and to engender an attitude toward food that is has no flavor of shame or abasement. We should be encouraged to eat if we’re hungry, not prohibited from using any and all resources available to us.

For statistics about eating disorders and college life, visit: http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/

For general information about eating disorders, visit: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/general-information

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, visit: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/find-help-support,

or contact the Amherst Student Health Educators for information or support: https://www.amherst.edu/campuslife/health/education/staff/stu_health