Bodies, Reimagined

by Victoria Nelsen | 2/26/15 8:00pm


“Please cross the line if you have ever felt uncomfortable with your body.”

The entire group of women stepped into the circle.

The group’s affiliation is meaningless in this case. I have led this facilitation five times with various groups of self-identifying women, both at Dartmouth and beyond, and this prompt is the only one in which 100 percent of women cross the line each and every time I facilitate the exercise.

It is no secret that we are not always taught to love our bodies. Bombarded by the images of mass media, from magazine covers to children’s dolls, we often idolize a peculiar notion of beauty that elevates a figure that is slim — but not too slim — above all else.

According to Spanish professor Israel Reyes, who also teaches courses in the women’s and gender studies department, the idealized body image for both men and women in the West is an athletic build. For men, that means a larger size and a muscular build, while the standard for beauty for women is smaller and skinnier.

Several students interviewed said that the idealized body image at the College varies slightly from the one often perpetuated in mass media. Eating Disorder Peer Advisor Bridget Lynn ’15 said that she feels that Dartmouth’s culture often values health and fitness, which sometimes translates into unhealthy behaviors.

“It’s not a desire to be thin but a desire to be healthy,” Lynn said. “It’s harder to detect the problem [when unhealthy behaviors arise].”

As a result, when people do exhibit unhealthy behavior, they can cloak a disorder behind a veneer of fitness and dieting. For people who don’t meet Dartmouth’s standards of fitness, it is easy to become discouraged and self-conscious.

Coordinator of nutrition programs and mental health counselor Claudette Peck said that many students come to Dartmouth with preformed notions of body image. She said that sometimes these ideas change, and students try to fit into what they believe the College expects of them.

“A certain weight doesn’t equate healthy,” Peck said. “Healthy is about all of you being healthy, including your mind.”

Lizzy Southwell ’15 said she suffered from an eating disorder for a year and a half when she was in high school. It began with a diet and exercise, but after receiving positive feedback, it escalated into something more dangerous. She said she became obsessed with counting calories and was easily able to hide the fact that she was struggling from others.

By the time Southwell arrived at the College, many would have considered her to be recovered, but she still was not completely stable. She said a two-year relationship allowed her to get to her current healthy state.

“I’m definitely in a much better place even than I was when I started at Dartmouth,” Southwell said. “I definitely think that Dartmouth, in terms of bodies and general attractiveness, is not like the rest of the world.”

Southwell said that there is an emphasis on being your best in every capacity at Dartmouth, which can be healthy in some ways and unhealthy in others.

To help improve body image on campus, Southwell said it is important to encourage a healthy view of exercise, create more forums for people to discuss the issue and provide safe spaces and communities for people to talk about the topic.

Lynn added that a high-achieving and fast-paced environment can result in problems with eating habits and body image. Though Lynn said that issues with one’s body image can be easier to hide on a fit campus, she emphasized that topics of how people perceive their own bodies are still prevalent on this campus. As an EDPA, she advises several students each term on concerns with eating disorders, exercise and nutrition.

Delta Delta Delta sorority’s body image coordinator Mandy Martin ’15 said that the level of physical activity among many students is both a blessing and a curse. Though it leads to a healthy lifestyle for some, it can intimidate others, Martin said.

The national chapter of Tri-Delt requires a body image coordinator position, and Martin said that she is in charge of the sorority’s Fat Free Talk, a week each October dedicated to promoting healthy body images with various programming, including guest speakers.

As body image coordinator, Martin also serves as an advisor in the house on issues of body image and self-perception, and she believes that spreading awareness of the pervasiveness of the issue is important.

Despite the stereotype that only women grapple with body image, Peck said men struggle with body image as much as women, though they often don’t verbalize it in the same way or make use of the same resources.

Peck said that many factors affect one’s body image, including race, socioeconomic background, family dynamics and gender. She noted that people begin thinking about their bodies very early in their lives.

While it affects nearly every student in some facet, body image has a particular resonance in the Greek system. Panhellenic Council president Rachel Funk ’15 said that women who fit a stereotypical image of beauty tend to succeed in sorority recruitment more than others.

“We obviously can’t quantify that,” Funk said. “It’s just based on how we see things shaking out.”

Still, Funk said that the College’s recruitment process is more informal than other universities, so body image might be less central here than elsewhere. She added that Greek houses can provide safe spaces for men and women to discuss concerns they have about their own body image.

Funk said that many of Dartmouth’s traditions outside of the Greek system can exclude people because of their body or fitness level, citing First Year Trips and the Homecoming bonfire.

One event that strives to disrupt body image norms on campus is Tabard coed fraternity’s Lingerie, an event that occurs each big weekend that Tabard president Connie Gong ’15 described as a combination of a runway show, dance performance and more. Gong said that the performances range in discipline, and performers are given the opportunity to be as clothed or unclothed as they like.

Gong said that Tabard discourages any disrespect for the performers. The house, she said, hopes to construct a place where people can feel free of their inhibitions and refrain from judgment of themselves and others.

Gong performed every term during her sophomore year but has not performed since.

“It was very liberating,” Gong said. “Having done that and knowing that I have the capability of doing that has led me to be a lot less self-conscious in my day-to-day life.”

Lynn said that EDPAs have been taking a new approach to combating body image issues this year. Instead of organizing events, which are not often well-attended, the focus is now on building more peer-to-peer relationships. These relationships, she said, are facilitated by the wellness office’s new programs, Thriving@Dartmouth and Thriving Together.

Thriving@Dartmouth, which offers students a P.E. credit, is a an eight-week program that focuses on an interactive and experiential way to teach students about wellness. Thriving Together is aimed at students with an interest in being peer advisors for issues like body image and drug and alcohol use, and the program’s goal is to equip students with the skills to support peers on issues of wellness. Both programs are aimed at a holistic approach, hoping to facilitate students physical, emotional and social health, among other aspects.

A major strength of the programs, Lynn said, is that they suggest small shifts in students’ lives — they meet students where they are.

Chris Meyer ’17 said that constructions of body image at Dartmouth are so implicit that he is unsure whether he has ever heard a conversation about it. He said that men are either supposed to be muscular and athletic “superheroes” or “frat stars” with receding hairlines and beer guts.

Center for Gender and Student Engagement men’s project fellow Logan Henderson ’17 said that men do not usually discuss body image on campus. He said not fitting the typical masculine body type might be alienating and hurtful — though it might only be seen regularly through NARP jokes.

Gender is not the only identity that intersects with body image. Reyes said that both race and socioeconomic class can impact body image. He said that African American and Latina women, for example, are often more curvaceous, and their body types do not normally fit within a dominant culture that glorifies a petite frame.

Reyes said this can often lead to a more difficult struggle toward body acceptance but that a larger representation of women of color in the media have provided more positive body images that don’t align with more traditional ideas of beauty. He cited Jennifer Lopez and Michelle Obama as examples.

Peck said that body image can vary by race based on different cultural idols and different ideas of traditional beauty.

Across racial lines, men tend to value a more similar body type, Reyes said. He added that socioeconomic class affects people of all genders because access to healthy foods is often limited for people of lower classes, both through economic and geographical availability.

Lynn believes that a shift in one’s mindset is necessary to address the problematic ideal of what the body should look like on the College’s campus. She suggests refraining from commenting on people’s appearances and from competing conversationally about fitness and healthy eating.

She added that this issue is not independent of others, stressing the importance of mental health overall.

“A lot of times, eating disorders are borne from desire for control,” Lynn said. “I don’t think all these issues are discrete things. There’s a lot of overlap and cause and effect between all of them.”