Awareness week sparks body image discussion

Another venue for campus discussion emerged last week with the launch of “Reclaiming Our Bodies,” a month-long series of events organized by the student group Active Minds, in line with National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. This marks the College’s second observance of the annual campaign.

According to Margi Wood, co-director of Psychological Counseling Services (PCS), only a small proportion of the 17 to 18 percent of the student body that PCS sees each year meets the criteria for a clinically diagnosable eating disorder. “However, whatever the main issues bringing a student in, frequently the mix will include struggles with body image issues and disordered eating,” Wood said. “These may not meet the threshold of a clinical diagnosis, but they are nevertheless real and painful aspects of many Williams students’ experience.”

The first event this year was an open forum titled “Breaking the Barbie Tyranny” at the Log last Thursday evening. Approximately 30 students and community members attended the forum, which sought to question a homogenized notion of beauty.

Interviews with some participants from the forum and a cross-section of other students suggest that the increasingly diverse College community is one effective bulwark against a uniform beauty ideal. “I feel much better about my body at Williams than in California,” said Esther Jun ’10. “Because so many girls here are from more diverse backgrounds than where I grew up, I think my idea of beauty has definitely broadened, and now I really appreciate how my body looks.”

Tomomi Kikuchi ’11, who hails from Japan, agreed. “I come from a country where being skinny – plain skinny – is considered beautiful,” she said. “Here, I see people admiring others with different shapes and sizes. It is not really about being the same size as everyone else, but rather, finding the size you look the best in.”

In addition to a celebration of difference, however, the College’s culture of athletic success also plays into students’ body image. “I don’t think conforming to any particular look weighs heavily on all or most students,” said Cary Choy ’09. He noted, however, an occasional conflation of health, skinniness and athleticism. “At least, some girls and a few guys I know want to be healthy-looking, but also really thin, and to and exercise a lot without eating what they need to eat to actually have a working body.”

Jun echoed his sentiments: “I think people think the healthiest people are the crazy-12-miles-in-a-hour-at-the-gym-salad-eating girls.”

However, both Jun and Veronica Rabelo ’11, a member of Active Minds, assert that such perceptions and practices are not unique to students at the College. “Based on my experiences here, though, it’s generally more women than men who tend to obsess over calories consumed or burned,” Rabelo said, “but I also hear a lot from men about how they feel uncomfortable working out in the weight room, and are always comparing themselves to peers.”

Constant comparison is a persistent motif in discussions of body image at the College. Such comparisons “can hit first-years especially hard,” Michelle Rodriguez ’12 noted. “When faced with a group of people you don’t know who look really good and eat really well and make it look really easy, what used to be self-confidence can very easily morph into a mad dash for self-improvement.”

Rodriguez recounted her own transition from a Puerto Rican diet of predominantly rice, beans and meat, to the dining hall experience here, which initially felt like “a swarm of green [salad-laden] plates. I thought there was something wrong with the way I ate, and I got really self-conscious of what I was eating in comparison to other people,” she said. “I’ve since stopped thinking like this, but only after a realization that just because I eat differently doesn’t mean I don’t eat correctly.”

Hallie D’Agruma ’97, post-doctoral psychologist at the Health Center, cautioned that an emphasis on low-carb, salad-heavy meals can be dangerous. “The physiological hunger from a low caloric intake can lead to a dieting mindset – an emotional hunger – that puts you at risk for disordered eating,” she said, citing a study which found that dieters are seven times more likely to develop eating disorder than non-dieters.

Possible sources for this mindset, D’Agruma noted, include a heightened self-consciousness about what and how to eat, which could itself be a function of the closed community composed of high-achieving individuals. “The prescription and restriction to be perfect in every way is bound to be too much at some point,” she said. She also noted that among students she works with, disordered eating can be an avenue for coping with deeper psychological conflicts. “Food starts out as a comfort, a distraction, a way to exert control, and can become a destructive habit.”

Students offered different takes on the underlying causes. While Kikuchi attributes it to a focus on self-discipline – “some may see people who are overweight and think that it is their lack of self-discipline on their bodies” – Santiago Sanchez ’11 suggested that these apparent norms play out in the dating culture. “People sometimes think that it is very hard to find someone to be involved with romantically,” he said. “Therefore, they look at the people who tend to get into relationships or hook-up a lot, who are often perceived to be athletes. If the people who get in relationships look a certain way, then maybe by looking like them, they can get into relationships more easily as well.”

Whether or not there is a causal link between dating and dieting, the desire to be healthy and attractive is widely considered a legitimate motivation for exercise. “When I ran track and worked out I enjoyed having the body I did and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone that pleasure,” Choy said. “There is great joy in having a body you feel others find attractive.”

However, Cale Weatherly ’09 underscored that fitness at the College is premised on “a commitment to health rather than a preoccupation with image.” Although some may believe that the large population of athletes on campus represent an unrealistic standard of body image, Weatherly notes the presence of a common recognition that healthy exercise and eating habits benefit everyone, athletes or otherwise.

To Weatherly, the one point of dissonance about body image here is “that many people whose eating and exercise regimens are above reproach consume tremendous quantities of alcohol every weekend.” Still, he views body image at the College in a very positive light. “Generally, people at Williams seem far happier with their bodies than those I grew up with in Cincinnati, a city known for its citizens’ lack of fitness, where healthy food was for nutcases and fat people trying to lose weight, and exercise was miserable drudgery in which only athletes should engage,” he said.

Rodriguez expressed a more qualified optimism. “I am surrounded by beautiful people on this campus, but I am also surrounded by people who can’t come to terms with their beauty because they can’t come to terms with the way they look,” she said. “There is nothing wrong with exercising and there’s nothing wrong with eating healthily, but I think at Williams there’s an overarching idea that if you don’t do these things, you’re an anomaly. We should listen to our own bodies, and do what’s right for ourselves.”

The next event in the series will be a panel discussion themed “Reclaiming OurBodies/OurSelves: Overcoming Eating Disorders” in Paresky Auditorium today at 7 p.m. Other upcoming events include a screening of the award-winning documentary “Thin” and a display of photographs from celebrated artist Lauren Greenfield.