UI falls short in promoting body positivity

By Gwyn Skiles, Features Editor

Phrases about weight such as “the freshman fifteen,” “sophomore slimming” and “postgrad pudge” are commonly passed around by college students. 

But what are the implications of these phrases? Experts say negative body image has run rampant and puts students at risk.

Kate Donaldson, sexuality & peer education coordinator at McKinley Health Center, said negative body image is one of the largest problems on campus. 

“I don’t have any data to support this but I really do think body image, self worth, self esteem is probably one of the top three issues on campus,” Donaldson said. “It’s really an area of health and wellness that affects almost every student in some way shape or form.”

When a person has a negative body image, Ian LeSueur, clinical counselor and chair of the eating disorders treatment and outreach team at the University Counseling Center, said thoughts can be harmful.

“Shame is often at the core of disordered eating behaviors or negative body image,” LeSueur said. “If we cannot achieve an ‘ideal body image,’ then there can be feelings of shame that ‘something is wrong with me’ or ‘I need to fix something.’”

Support is needed more than ever because of the pandemic, according to Kayla Vargas, vice president of Illini CHAARG. The RSO aims to create a supportive environment for female students to exercise. 

The American Psychological Association published survey results finding that three in five adults have struggled with weight during the pandemic.

“(Body positivity) has definitely been challenged this year for most students and I think even pulling in faculty and staff and other members of our community,” Donaldson said. “So many of us have never experienced a pandemic like this, so many of us have never spent this much time in virtual environments and so many of us are experiencing new challenges.”

Over the past year, Vargas said Illini CHAARG has addressed the commonly phrased “quarantine fifteen” by switching its platform to encourage body positivity among members in addition to initiating exercise. 

“This year we have a lot of focus on mental health and body positivity just due to us being virtual,” Vargas said. “We have found a really good balance of combining fitness along with mental health because being healthy isn’t just about how your body looks, it’s also how your brain feels.”

The Cambridge Dictionary defines body positivity as “the fact of feeling good about your body and the way it looks.”

Race, gender, sexuality, ability and other identities all intersect with body positivity, Donaldson said.

“I think it’s tough because if you look at the history of the body positivity movement it really focused on the sizes of bodies,” Donaldson said. “I think the one good thing that maybe has come in the last year alongside the pandemic is that we’re starting to look at body acceptance and body positivity more than just size.”

Kennedy Freeman, freshman in FAA, said her Black identity has influenced her body image from a young age. 

“I grew up playing sports and all the girls were skinny white girls, and I was a little chubby growing up so it was just hard when I thought of myself,” Freeman said. “I thought I was so ugly for so long.”

In terms of relationships, Freeman said all the boys she knew would go for white girls.

“I think a lot of Black girls get overlooked in terms of boys,” Freeman said. “An average looking white girl can get a lot farther than an average looking Black girl and so I think that also contributed to my body image.”

Freeman also said that a lot of people of color tend to be in food deserts where there aren’t many healthy options.

“I just noticed that a lot of people of color around me have more curvy features,” Freeman said.

Many think the University doesn’t provide enough resources to help promote body positivity and combat negative body image. 

“We’ve noticed an increased desire for more resources and education regarding positive body image and disordered eating,” LeSueur said. “The University could help these efforts by supporting outreach efforts that are able to reach more students and are inclusive of other campus and community members.”

LeSueur said the current resources available to students include eating disorder assessments, individual time-limited psychotherapy, a weekly disordered eating and body image therapy group and workshops, all of which are provided via telehealth for all students, on campus or remote.

In addition to medical appointments, McKinley hosts workshops, initiates discussions about the intersection of body positivity with sexuality and provides resources such as appointments with dietitians and fitness instructors.

Body positivity is also a social movement, and LeSueur said that in addition to seeking professional help, students should support one another.

“If you overhear someone criticizing someone else’s body, let them know that these messages are harmful,” LeSueur said. “Avoid commenting on someone’s weight or what they are eating.”

Redirecting focus onto health instead of weight and identifying your strengths and what you appreciate about your body is another strategy LeSueur said is helpful.

Vargas said Illini CHAARG promotes encouragement through social media.

“Just a simple comment on somebody’s post or liking or sharing a post I think really helps someone struggling with body positivity just so that they feel some type of positive encouragement from somebody else,” Vargas said.

However, Donaldson said it’s important to be cautious when using social media. Although it can be a tool, social media also creates impossible beauty standards with editing features.

“I think manipulation of photos and videos is totally possible and something we sometimes forget,” Donaldson said. “Filtering and posing, blurring and editing — there’s total manipulation of some people’s content and when we’re comparing ourselves to something that’s not real, it can be really harmful and hurtful for us as individuals.”

[email protected]