Pressure vs Positivity: Body Image on Campus

The intention of an email recently sent by Anytime Fitness to one of its customers (see below) was to be ‘funny’, it however sought to do this by saying that if you can pinch any inch of your body, you are ‘fat’. The email painted a picture of a warm summer’s day, which you apparently have to look skinny to enjoy. It is through ill-attempted, corporate marketing campaigns such as this, that people are left feeling pressurized to have the perfect summer body, through the way in which they glamorize eating disorders while plus-sized bodies are stigmatized. The dangerous consequences of eating disorders are masked by these supposedly ‘light-hearted slogans’, which when considered alongside the entrenched beauty standards in society, put both men and women at greater risk of developing them. This email is especially harmful as it comes from a distant, detached voice, which could therefore, lead the person on the receiving end to believe that this opinion is representative of how they are viewed by everyone else in society. The empty claim behind this email is that it was supposed to ‘motivate’ people to lose weight, however, reducing one’s self esteem is not at all a healthy way of encouraging an active lifestyle.

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There are many reasons that might explain why body positivity can sometimes be difficult to maintain on university campuses. Being thrown into a completely new environment, can cause shifts in our eating habits as, often for the first time, we have full control over our own diets. Having to balance every aspect of university life can also be challenging: from managing meal plans, to sleep schedules and meeting deadlines, as well as maintaining a social life. A recent article published by the Childmind Institute indicates that eating disorders are most frequently seen among young people during their college years. According to the NEDA, 10–20% of women and 4–10% of men in college suffer from eating disorders. Students experiencing mental health difficulties may also be dealing with feelings of isolation; in light of this, the impersonal voice of Anytime Fitness’s shaming email is particularly dangerous. Hence, some individuals may find it harder to open up about their experiences and reach out for the help and encouragement they need, only eventually seeking support when their struggles are at the extreme. However, preventive efforts can be found on the Exeter campuses, where student groups are working to create a more non-judgmental, inclusive environment. The more loved and respected we feel around friends, family and peers, the more comfortable we are within a larger environment; help seems more visible and effective when everyone feels appreciated for who they are and how they look.

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The ‘Beats Eating Disorder’ society has played a crucial role in making campus a more positive environment by holding talks to raise awareness of these issues in support of the national charity Beat. These talks provide not only the first step, but a significant step, towards a more body positive environment in our university community. Through establishing both the facts and the taboos surrounding these issues, the society works to develop a better understanding and eliminate any judgment of those with eating disorders. To build a judgement-free zone is not an easy task, however, there are multiple ways to create a more caring atmosphere. Studies from Perdana University in Malaysia, UCL and Anglia Ruskin show that natural environments promote a more positive body image in comparison with built ones, healthy outdoor exercises can help us to become more receptive of and attuned to our own natural bodies, from within. On the Exeter campus, Body Society are doing exactly that, in their aim to create a fun and upbeat space for exercise on campus. Last year, the society held their ‘BodySoc Makes A Difference’ event, in which all profits from the class were donated to charities – including Beat. The contrast between Exeter’s BodySoc and Anytime Fitness shows that we can motivate each other towards a healthier lifestyle through compassionate and helpful interactions rather than offensive and harsh ones which ‘motivate’ people in a negative way.

By Khanh Nguyen 

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