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Body Project at BC Breaks Down the Appearance Ideal

BC’s Body Project, a peer-led body acceptance program that helps female-identifying students resist cultural pressures to conform to the “appearance ideal,” had its last session this past Saturday. There were seven sessions throughout this semester, each consisting of two group discussions on two consecutive Saturdays for two hours. The groups are smallthe maximum is around 12 peopleso as to ensure that students feel comfortable in their vulnerability. It is centered around breaking down the “appearance ideal,” or the beauty standards that society has defined as the ideal that we’re all expected to strive toward. It uses a “cognitive dissonance approach,” which challenges the appearance ideal in activities that help individuals realign themselves with healthy behaviors through verbal, written, and behavioral exercises. 

Although body negativity and its ramifications don’t seem to be discussed explicitly throughout the student population, a survey put out two years ago by the nutrition program on campus revealed how prevalent body image issues are at BC. Out of the entire student population, 80% of students said that they were body-checking, 47% said that they restrict certain food from their everyday diet throughout the year in order to lose weight, 83% of students limit food groups, 67% of students report that their mood is influenced by their body, and 64% of students exercise to burn calories. Because another goal of the Body Project is to ensure that students who are struggling with body negativity recognize that they aren’t alone, these numbers help to confirm that it is a shared experience, especially among college students.

The Body Project was originally created by the National Eating Disorder Association in 2012 with the intention that universities implement it into their own health programs. Since being implemented, it has become one of the most successful programs on body image in young women. Developed after two decades of research, it has been found to have a 60% reduction in the onset of eating disorders over three years in females aged 14-19.  Student leaders at BC and other colleges were trained by the creators of the Body Project. Responses to BC’s Body Project, which began about two years ago, are overall very positive. A pre-assessment and post-assessment are conducted to gain more insight into students’ reactions, and the post-assessment has shown an improvement in body satisfaction, a reduction in dietary restriction, and a decrease in the internalization of the appearance ideal.

It’s important to note that although the Body Project provides a safe space for discussion and guidance, it is only a first step in working toward body positivity. “This is a first step to get young women involved, and just start a conversation around body image,” said Ann Abraham, one of BC’s student facilitators. “It’s not a fix-all, but it is a first step...and it is a way of empowering women on our campus to challenge the appearance ideal, because it is very prevalent on our campus to give self-deprecating comments.” Ali Hulse, who co-led with Abraham, added, “One of the things that’s the most powerful about the Body Project is that it forces us to recognize the behavior in ourselves.”

People often don’t realize that their own unhealthy behaviors and negative body-image talk fosters a toxic environment on campus. Even seemingly meaningless comments about needing to go to the Plex to burn off calories, judging someone else’s social media, or criticizing oneself while glancing in the mirror not only damages self-confidence but also sets an unhealthy example for others. Self-deprecating comments seem to have become the norm, and the Body Project seeks to address this. 

The Body Project is primarily for students who identify as female; however, a male Body Project and focus groups are in the works and set to roll out in 2020. A social media campaign surrounding male-identified body-image, likely to be called #mentellall, is also coming out soon. “I think before we can institute a male Body Project, we need to get some statistics about how men are feeling and...generate the initial conversations with them before they’d be ready to join a program like this,” said Hulse. While the program recognizes the importance of addressing the intersectionality of body image, it has been dedicated to helping women due to the fact that eating disorders are more common in women than men.

If this sounds like something you’d like to get involved in, there are many ways to do so. The Office of Health Promotion offers about six to seven sessions of the Body Project per semester, so there will be more opportunities to join in the Spring. Through the iNourish campaign, both group coaching sessions and one-on-one body-image conversations are available. These are both led by iNourish’s student coaches and about forty-five minutes to an hour. No matter where you fall in terms of body acceptance and health, these discussions are open to all students. For those that feel uncomfortable with structured meetings or meeting with a peer, Ali Hulse also suggested setting up an appointment with Boston College’s dietitian Kate Sweeney. Even without participating in these meetings, the Body Project also emphasizes that even the smallest victories in body-image are means of getting involved with body activism. 

The Body Project has not only helped the students who have taken part in it, but it has also resonated widely with the group facilitators. “It’s helped me practice a lot more self-compassion...and meeting yourself where you are is definitely the first step to just living that more liberating and freeing lifestyle,” said Abraham. Hulse had the same mindset. “It’s brought me to this community of women who are all so strong and powerful...but also, we all have our own struggles, and that’s very much okay,” she said, smiling. “It’s taught me gratitude...being grateful everyday for the things your body can do, rather than how it looks.” There is no question that body negativity is prevalent at BC, but the Body Project helps ensure that these problems don’t go unnoticed. Helping get the conversation started and take the first step in transforming students’ mindsets, it sets them off into life at BC with the tools to resist harmful beauty standards and help students around them who may also be battling through body negativity.

National Eating Disorders Helpline: (800)-931-2237

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