At the University of New Hampshire (UNH), Health & Wellness conducted a survey and found that 25 percent of student participants either had an eating disorder or significant symptoms of an eating disorder. Over half said they knew someone with an eating disorder. Over 50 percent said their weight and/or body shape influenced how they felt about themselves. Over 50 percent said they fear gaining weight. More than two-thirds said they thought certain parts of their body were too fat. College campuses often negatively affect the way students feel about themselves and their bodies. Two UNH students, Morgan Martin and Ally Lyons, shared their experiences and struggles to find body positivity within themselves and shared advice they would give to others.
Junior Morgan Martin said during her freshman year of high school she considered herself to be the biggest of her friends. She was influenced by media that the “big friend” should be the loud and funny one in the friend group and so, trying to fit in, that is exactly what she did. She soon realized that acting this way was not who she was. Martin began subscribing to feminist and body positive blogs that talked about self-love.
“The accounts and blogs I followed also talked about loving your body even if you were fat, which I had never heard before as a fat person,” said Martin. “I’d also like to say that in a similar way that LGBTQ people have reclaimed the word ‘queer,’ fat people are reclaiming the word ‘fat.’ So, I’m not using fat as a negative term when I say it, just as a descriptor and identity. That being said, I wouldn’t call another person of size fat without knowing how they feel about the word.”
Students on college campuses are constantly influenced by media and advertisements that show the next new diet, workout routine or health trend. As a society we are usually shown the thin, tall and quotably flawless woman, or the fit, tall and handsome male. We idolize unrealistic expectations because that is what we are shown. Social media has become a huge problem for people regarding their mental health and well-being. Often students are warned about things society looks down on, like “the freshman 15,” which causes major concern around any and all weight gain students face.
“I think that it’s too common that we focus so much on our weight and dieting when weight fluctuates no matter what you do,” said Martin. “Treating your mind with respect and love is just as important as treating your body well. Sometimes that means eating some cookies when you want cookies. Other times it means cutting down on sugar because you’re getting headaches or crashing too often. But, every body is different.”
Allie Lyons is a graduate student at UNH as well as an Eating Concern Mentor. In her role as an Eating Concern Mentor, she provides support, information and referrals to current students who are struggling with eating disorders, disordered eating or eating concerns. Eating Concern Mentors also work to raise awareness and educate students and faculty about body image and eating disorders around campus. Struggling with an eating disorder herself, Lyons says most of what she knows about body positivity has come from her own experience.
“There is such a negative connotation with gaining weight, which makes it easy for individuals to connect this number directly to their self-worth,” said Lyons. “College can be a really difficult transition for so many people for so many different reasons. It is almost inevitable that your body is going to change as you make this transition and it is not something that we should be punishing ourselves for. I think that the pressures of going out, wearing certain types of clothes, fitting in with a certain group of people and eating a certain diet is what perpetuates the negative relationship that too many individuals have with their bodies.”
Students do not have to face these struggles alone. UNH offers various opportunities in which students can reach out for help and for someone to talk to. Whether it is an Eating Concern Mentor, a doctor or nurse from Health and Wellness or a counselor from Psychological and Counseling Services (PACS), reaching out to someone provides a start for change to be enacted.
“One of the biggest things that I like to emphasize when discussing body image and eating disorders is that there is no ‘right way’ to struggle with these things,” Lyons said. “Anybody can struggle with body image and disordered eating, and each and every experience is just as important and real. It can be so easy to diminish your own feelings, struggles and story because it doesn’t match the story that is presented in the media. But the media is full of false realities. Your story and your experiences matter.”
Body positivity is not an easy thing to achieve. It is not easy to change society’s views, but making small changes on how you perceive the media you take in is one small step in making a difference.
“I don’t think it is necessarily realistic to expect there to be a huge shift in the way that media represents beauty, but it is the little efforts that will get us there,” Lyons said. “I think the biggest thing that we can do as individuals is to raise awareness about body image and the toxic messages that society promotes.”