Content warning: This article contains mentions of eating disorders.
This past weekend, Amherst’s women’s sports teams had initially planned to gather for their annual Bruce Bogtrotter cake-eating competition. Reflecting on the fact that a similar event at Tufts University led to a young woman choking and dying last fall, the organizers decided to cancel this year’s competition the night before it was set to occur. Last year’s tragedy at Tufts was not the only reason that the event should have been canceled, however. The concerns we raise below are ones that have been heard for years in conjunction with the event, and we hope that this year’s cancellation can encourage all of us to think more critically about the competition and the broader culture at Amherst that it represents.
In addition to safety concerns surrounding the event, the Bruce Bogtrotter competition also perpetuated a culture of disordered eating among female athletes. The event, which gets its name from the classic scene in Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” was a cake-eating competition aimed at finding out which team could eat an entire sheet cake the fastest. The event was organized by the women’s ice hockey team, and each team, after paying an entry fee (covering the cost of the cake), would choose four participants who partner up to eat in four-minute intervals. Additionally, a fifth team member could serve as a “celebrity” cake-eater who would sub in for a minute at any time. It was common for women to prepare for the event by barely eating all day, then throwing up everything they have eaten soon after the event ends. From this image, it shouldn’t be hard to see the ways in which this event promoted disordered eating behaviors and was triggering for people with backgrounds of disordered eating.
The event was touted as a time for female sports teams to come together and enjoy healthy competition. It is, to our knowledge, the only recurring event at Amherst designed with this purpose. It is ironic, then, that the event is so deeply tied up in perpetuating a culture of disordered eating. While people of all ages and gender identities can and do experience disordered eating, a 2015 American Counseling Association study shows that women in their late teens and early twenties (the exact demographic of most Bruce Bogtrotter participants) are particularly at risk. Moreover, women who spend a lot of time with other similarly aged women, such as those on sports teams, are the most at risk because the constant close proximity means we’ll hear many comments our teammates make about their bodies, exercise habits, and diets.
As members of the women’s crew team, we have been making a concerted effort over the past few years to shift this culture by including guidelines for speaking about these topics in our team expectations and participating in relevant programming through the Counseling Center. Before Bruce Bogtrotter each year, the captains of our team would often send a message informing us of the triggering nature of the event. Why, then, if we know what this event perpetuates, did our teams continue to promote it for so long? It seems that the answer, as it so often is, is that it was a tradition. But what does it say about the culture at Amherst that we find it so difficult to step away from tradition, even when we know there is something wrong with the tradition?
Bruce Bogtrotter was scheduled fairly early in the academic year. For many first-years, the event came at a time when they didn’t have a solidified friend group yet and felt like they needed to participate in all the social events they could. Athletes on club teams, like ours, had only joined the team a week or two before the event occurred, and they were eager to participate in any event that the team sponsored. What does an event like this tell these first-years about athletics at Amherst, and the way Amherst supports and treats women?
We don’t write this article thinking that much of what we argue here will be a new perspective to many people, especially not for female athletes. We know it isn’t, because we’ve heard these conversations behind closed doors for years. We hope instead that the decision made to cancel Bruce Bogtrotter this year can become an opportunity to have these conversations more publicly, and to ensure that Bruce Bogtrotter does not return in the coming years.