Real Talk: Body Image

With Homecoming quickly approaching, she pulls that skin-tight red dress out of the closet and onto her bed. It’ll take a few days, but she can fit into it. If she stops eating, maybe she’ll look great in that dress. Maybe people will notice her then.

Eating disorders and disordered eating are extremely serious emotional and physical issues. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, in the U.S., 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point during their lives. Perhaps because there seems to be a significant stigma attached to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, people sometimes overlook the fact that eating disorders are not lifestyle choices. They are serious illnesses. It is because of this that combating eating disorders and their potentially life-threatening consequences is absolutely vital, and unfortunately a work in progress in society.

It’s important to distinguish between eating disorders and disordered eating. According to a new study by the National Eating Disorders Association, approximately a half million teenagers struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating. Sheila Tucker, administrative dietician at BC and auxiliary services nutritionist in the Office of Health Promotion (OHP), was careful to make the distinction.

Eating disorders, she noted, entail a clinical diagnosis. She described disordered eating, however, as in a sort of gray area on the continuum-a crazy diet to fit into a dress last minute, a chronic calorie calculator, feeling the need to exercise off specific calories.

“On this campus, the biggest challenge we have isn’t treating the eating disorders,” she said. “It’s how to deal with the culture that normalizes disordered eating. Some people live in the middle of the continuum all the time.” She also spoke about how important Love Your Body Week is in combating the poisonous thought patterns that are normalized at BC. “We are so much more than objects,” she said.

Tucker noted that changing the culture is the only true way to change eating disorders. “Learning to reject the thin ideal is how you try to prevent eating disorder, and that’s hard because that’s the culture.” In her clinical practice, Tucker helps students with medical issues related to the meal plan. She noted, however, that it has turned into much more than just that. She helps students learn how to navigate the dining hall, and students with other medical issues come see her for help. Her clinical numbers actually increased 100 percent last year from the year before, and more visits are for disordered eating than for any other reason.

If this unhealthy behavior is so normalized on campus, it begs the question of how this came to be. Tucker described an eating disorder as a “perfect storm,” saying that “with a true eating disorder, you need to have many risk factors together.” Stress and stress management, lower self esteem as a result of the hook-up culture, and “fat talk” can all be factors. She reiterated, however, that it’s important to remember that “everyone is unique about why they might have a poor relationship with food-there is no one size fits all for why this happens.”

Lauren Bly, Women’s Resource Center (WRC) staff member and A&S ’15, noted how casual “fat talk” can actually have detrimental psychological effects on how we perceive our bodies and other peoples’ bodies. “Fat talk is really prevalent in college,” Bly said. “But I also don’t think it is a stretch to say it’s extremely prevalent at BC.”

Bly noted how the WRC is fully there for students-men and women. “We are by no means licensed counselors, and we don’t pretend to have all the answers,” she said. “But just being able to say something out loud can be a very empowering experience. The WRC wants to make it known that they can air it out with us there. If we can’t handle it right there in the office, we will do our best to make sure the student feels more comfortable when they leave and has a sense of direction.” Students can talk to the WRC staff, a graduate assistant, or the director. They can also be referred to Counseling Services for further support.

Part of the work of OHP involves improving body image and educating about what healthy eating actually is, compared to what the perception of it is. Directly educating students about what healthy eating is has proven effective in helping to prevent eating disorders. The “Nourish” campaign, spearheaded by OHP and Dining Services, is the official healthy eating campaign that aims to broaden knowledge of healthy eating, and to try to overcome barriers to eating well.

OHP offers various programs such as iBalance, iEat, iCope, and Girl Talk. Girl Talk fosters conversations in learning how to reject the thin ideal. Stress management provides students with tools on how to cope with stress in order to try to inhibit them from turning to food to control the way they feel.

Students play a vital role in this mentoring process. Student health coaches are trained and certified to educate their peers in group situations related to the definition of healthy eating. Additionally, there are health coaches certified in iHPs (health plans), and they are available for one-on-one conversations about health, offering mini assessments and strategizing with students on their health goals.

The peer health model has proven extremely effective for the initial level of health education. “We know from studies that students will listen first to a knowledgeable peer before they will listen to a professional,” Tucker said.

OHP works in tandem with the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) and University Counseling Services to provide students with the most seamless path toward help. Tucker noted how there is no one “right way” to go about getting help for eating issues at BC. The system functions so that a student can get help from whichever avenue they are most comfortable pursuing.

Katie Dalton, director of the WRC, explained how the WRC addresses the issue of eating disorders by offering resources on and off campus. In addition, the WRC offers a weekly discussion group called UnSaid to address disordered eating on campus. “UnSaid aims to explore the unspoken and unrealistic expectations of ‘health’ and ‘beauty’ here at Boston College,” she said. “It is a welcoming place for students to come together to raise concerns, investigate and collaborate on issues of body image and body acceptance on our campus.”

Dalton articulated what she sees as a main cause of the prevalence of eating issues on campus. The adjustment to college, new independence, and general change can be unsettling. She attributed the feeling of being unable to find stability in this new environment as a factor in disordered eating.

“Regardless of where one is in the college experience, for approximately 20 percent of college-aged women, the stress manifests itself into an issue of control-one in which the student feels that so many changes has made life feel out of control,” she said. “The result is that a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that by controlling what they eat, how much they exercise, and looking ‘thin,’ they can not only look more attractive, but also cope with and be successful in the new environment.”

Love Your Body Week, taking place this week, is put on by the WRC, and is dedicated to “promoting healthy body image and reminding people of all the amazing things the body can do,” said WRC staff member Jessica Stevens, A&S ’14. “It is a chance for students to engage with their body in a positive way and start to shift the negative perceptions some people have about their body. It is a week for discussing the issues of eating disorders; the media’s influence on body image; healthy eating and exercise habits; the connection between physical and mental health; the various stereotypes and body expectations for different cultures, ethnicities, genders, and sexualities; and a chance to celebrate the body.”

Stevens added that while Love Your Body Week is an awareness campaign, its efforts should not be restrained to one week. Conversations about body image should continue all the time, and the dialogue should extend into discussion groups, residence hall talks, and other programs.

In essence, the resources for students on campus aim to broaden knowledge about healthy eating, to widen the lens of how students interpret health, and to address some of the barriers they may perceive as getting in the way of their ability to eat healthily.

Stevens sees change as promising when our society becomes more aware of the unrealistic expectations of beauty and size that are engrained in our culture. “While it is difficult to change the media’s portrayal of beauty and its obsession with thinness, we as a community can be more aware of these expectations and how they negatively impact us,” she said. “Knowledge can be a source of empowerment and can lead to a desire to seek change in society.”

Love Your Body Week is a great awareness campaign, but constant campus-wide dialogue about health and body image is necessary  to combat the normalizing of a body-conscious culture. “It’s ultimately rewarding because even if you only help one person every once in a while, that is enormous,” Tucker said. “The rewards are in seeing people do better. The sooner someone gets help, the sooner recovery is likely to happen. The longer you allow the behavior, the more work needs to be done.”