Women combat ‘fat talk’ and ‘thin ideals’ through The Body Project

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    A new campus initiative is addressing a familiar problem in a unique way. Women at TCU are responding to unrealistic beauty standards by helping peers achieve positive body image and self-acceptance.

    The Trend

    Rates of reported eating disorders are increasing on college campuses across the country.

    Eric Wood, associate director of the Counseling and Mental Health Center, said there are estimates that 25 percent of all college students have experienced the symptoms of an eating disorder and 75 percent of all college students report a perception that they need to lose weight.

    “The rates are trending upwards. Most schools are reporting more cases,” Wood said.

    The upward trend in the number of reported eating disorders is not necessarily a bad thing, however.

    Wood said the existence of eating disorders has become more accepted and talked about, making it more likely for students to seek help.

    According to a 2013 survey done by the National Eating Disorder Association, 95 percent of schools are reporting an increase in the number of students utilizing their mental health services.

    One of the most common barriers to treating eating disorders, according to the NEDA, is the stigma associated with reporting an illness.

    The NEDA survey says, “The cultural value placed on thinness and normalization of dieting behaviors in the U.S. can contribute to hearing comments from others that encourage and reinforce eating disorder behaviors or family and friends not recognizing signs and symptoms.”

    The increasing number of eating disorder cases being reported could be a sign that more college students feel comfortable coming forward and seeking treatment.

    Universities are now pressed with the task of not only treating eating disorders, but also preventing them.

    Schools are working on preventative measures that address concerns about body image.

    Campus Culture

    Wood said TCU reports higher than usual numbers of eating disorders.

    Most college counseling centers report that an average of 5 percent of their clients come with such concerns. TCU’s average is about 8 percent.

    Wood says this is common for many private schools.

    “Some think it’s the dynamics of private schools such as a sense of high achievement, strive for perfectionism, plus the more available resources that could foster such things,” Wood said.

    TCU’s eating disorder rate may be average compared to other private schools, but women say they feel like TCU’s beauty standards are far too high.

    In 2011, TCU was ranked at 21 on the most beautiful list of the Newsweek and Daily Beast’s College Rankings.

    Last week, Total Frat Move listed TCU in its list of “Universities with the Hottest Girls.”

    Although these rankings only represent stereotypes and false beauty ideals, they can be detrimental to the mental health of collegiate women.

    Nicole Bell, a junior movement science major, said these rankings put a lot of pressure on girls to keep that image up.

    “You’re more aware of it at TCU,” Bell said. “There’s a lot of emphasis for this skinny ideal.”

    Bell said the she notices the pressure on her friends to look a certain way when they go out or get their “skinny side” when taking pictures.

    “There is such a focus on how you look. It’s more prominent here than it is on other campuses, and I definitely think it needs to be addressed,” Bell said.

    Addressing the Need

    Amanda Swartz, a psychologist in the Counseling and Mental Health Center, saw the need for a program that addressed body image at TCU.

    After learning about an initiative called “The Body Project” at a few conferences, Swartz was contacted by the Eating Recovery Center of Denver, the researcher and current sponsor of the project.

    “Unfortunately, a young lady in North Texas passed away from an eating disorder last summer and in her name and honor, her family wanted to bring this program to four North Texas universities,” Swartz said.

    That grant helped bring this program to TCU. It covered the majority of the cost of the training.

    The Body Project differs from many other programs designed to address eating disorders. Unlike other approaches, the program does not use scare tactics or make food and dieting the focus of the conversation.

    “Research shows that this program works better for women because it doesn’t actually target eating disorders. It targets body image and body image is something we have proven we can change,” Swartz said.

    The program is designed for young women to help other young women critique beauty ideals and gain size acceptance.

    Swartz said she immediately thought the program would be a great fit for TCU because of the strong leadership base and the body image concerns on campus.

    “Having a positive, prevention-based model seemed like something that could really improve the campus community and the campus culture,” Swartz said.

    The Body Project at TCU

    The basis of the project is rejection of the “thin ideal.”

    “It’s about learning skills to improve body image, how to negate fat talk and look at consequences of the thin ideal, and also what costs we’re pitting against women and what costs we’re challenging each other with, and how we can work together to improve that,” Swartz said.

    The activity-based workshops take place in groups of 10 women.

    The activities involve open discussions and body image challenges that ask women to do something they usually do not do because of body image concerns.

    Peer leaders with extensive training run these workshops.

    Last month, the Body Project trained 13 peer leaders and four faculty members at TCU.

    “The training involves them going through the program at least three times, and their feedback has been spectacular,” Swartz said.

    The leaders are taught skills that help them avoid engaging in fat talk or negative talk about their friends or themselves.

    One of the ways leaders practice their skills is by using them in their everyday lives. 

    “They were so moved by the experience that they want to share it with others,” Swartz said.

    Women were nominated to become peer leaders and then went through an application process.

    Kit Snyder, a sophomore English major and one of the 13 peer leaders, was immediately interested in the project.

    She said she was surprised at how serious the problem was.

    “You collaborate with the group of girls around you to decide what the perfect woman would look like, and you see all these crazy expectations, and you quickly realize that’s not a thing,” Kit said.

    Nia Brookins, a sophomore theatre and writing major, said the program taught her that body image is about perspective.

    “It was really beneficial to me in a sense that I look at myself in a different light now,” Brookins said.

    Brookins said she highly encourages other women to go through it.

    “It’s kind of contagious. If you think good about yourself, people will think good about themselves too,” Brookins said.

    Rachael Capua, one of the faculty leaders, said the biggest benefit of the program is that women on campus feel like they have a safe place.

    “The Body Project gives women a place to talk about some of these worldly ideals of being thin or loving self, versus taking other actions to being whatever society says is beautiful,” Capua said.

    The Body Project is planning to run the first workshop for TCU women this semester.

    Swartz said eventually campus organizations will have the opportunity to send small groups of women through the program.

    “My hope is that we get a snowball effect here. That people who go through it see the positive effects, see that their body image improves, that their thinking improves and they start to tell their friends about it and their friends want to go through it. We really can create a movement to enact positive change on campus,” Swartz said.