Body Image at Amherst and Beyond

Body Image at Amherst and Beyond

In a society where even the J-Laws of the world are criticized for having bodies that don’t fit preconceived standards of beauty, it can be hard for both women and men to find acceptance with their bodies. While people of all ages experience negative feelings about their bodies, it is a common problem in the college environment, where students engage in a lot of comparison with others. This week, the Student Health Educators are hosting the third annual “My Body is Beautiful Week,” which focuses on the promotion of positive body image. The week features a film screening, a talk by Professor of Psychology Catherine Sanderson and culminates with a dinner and conversation about body image.

Professor Sanderson, James E. Ostendarp Professor of Psychology, says that college is a time in which students are very self-aware and self-conscious. Thus, “college students engage in huge amounts of comparison with others, and lots of research in psychology shows that comparing ourselves to others causes real problems.” These feelings are not limited to physical appearance, and can include insecurities about intelligence or popularity.

Feelings of insecurity can manifest themselves in negative self-talk, or in more serious cases, disordered eating. It is important to remember that while making changes to one’s appearance may seem like the key to happiness, this is rarely the case. “People of all ages have the belief that if they just lost ten pounds, or had a flat stomach or clearer skin, they would be happier,” says Professor Sanderson, “but the reality is that we adjust to changes in our lives and no longer experience the same benefit in terms of happiness.”

While the media is a common source of blame for body insecurities, it is not the only factor. Genetics, family upbringing and personality contribute to the development of problems related to eating, exercise and body image. Those who exhibit perfectionist personalities are susceptible to developing disordered eating and exercise habits. At an elite school like Amherst, where many students strive for perfection in all areas of life, it can be a dangerous environment for body insecurity. For cases of disordered eating and exercise there are resources available through the health center and Eating Disorder Assessment Team. The resources are available for both students who are struggling themselves and for friends of someone who is struggling to get advice on how they can and can’t help.

Negative body image and anxiety can affect everyone, and while it does not always manifest itself in disordered eating and exercise, it can have a negative effect on day-to-day happiness and quality of life. “My Body is Beautiful Week” began when the SHEs became concerned with the frequency of “fat-talk” on campus. “Fat-talk” is the tendency to make negative comments about one’s body. When one person engages in fat-talk, others in the conversation may feel compelled to chime in with similarly self-degrading remarks. The SHEs hope to foster a culture of positive body image and loving one’s body.

The events of “My Body is Beautiful Week” will promote body positivity by encouraging students to share what they love about their bodies. There will be an Instagram campaign, where students can submit photos with captions about why they love their bodies in order to enter a raffle for t-shirts with the slogan “be-you-tiful”. Professor Sanderson will speak about body image on Wendesday night at 8 p.m. in Merrill 4. The culminating events will be two dinners, a men’s dinner and a women’s dinner, where SHEs will facilitate a discussion about body image.

“The women’s dinner has always been my favorite part of the week,” says student health educator Sarah Martell ’15. “It’s very empowering and eye-opening to get a bunch of strong, beautiful women in a room together and allow them the opportunity to be vulnerable and to open up to one another about body image at Amherst. It is helpful to remind people that we are all subject to the same unrealistic expectations of beauty and that we can and should support one another.”

The SHEs are introducing a men’s dinner this year to bring attention to the under-addressed issue of male body image. “Everyone in our community faces challenges to their body confidence because of the unrealistic standards of modern culture,” says SHE Johnathan Appel ’16. “It’s seen as particularly shameful for men to express this. I hope that this dinner will bring this conversation to the whole community.”

The women’s dinner will be held on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in O’Connor Commons. The men’s dinner will be held at the same time in the common room of Charles Pratt.

The SHEs will be tabling in Keefe Wendesday and Thursday. Stop by to make a pledge to be body positive, or to learn more about body image.