Examining student body image on the Hill

Colby students hold themselves to high standards in every aspect of their lives, whether in academics, extracurricular activities, or physical appearance. This latter concern was the focus of the recent Body Image Awareness Week, during which groups including Student Health on Campus (SHOC), Active Minds and the Gender and Sexuality Diversity program organized a series of events designed to start a conversation about the way we perceive our bodies.

On February 24, Active Minds speaker Maggie Bertram gave a talk on her struggles with an eating disorder, and the next day, students who struggle or have struggled with self-image presented their personal narratives. Their stories showed that body image issues are both internal and external problems that fester on inside us. There is a significant difference, however, between what society expects the ideal man, woman, student or athlete to look like and what we actually look like.

For athletes, the pressure to look a certain way is especially intense. On top of the ambient pressure for the academic perfection Colby students face, these students’ weight and fitness are always under a microscope. Taylor Peucker ’16 spoke movingly about the costs of this pressure. “I went to boarding school and eating disorders were rampant on campus. I have had many friends with eating disorders, but never thought I would get one because I always had my basketball, my family, and my strong sense of self,” Peucker said.

“But when I got to Colby, it was much different. I felt immense pressure to do well academically, on the basketball court, and socially. There were a lot of different voices in my head saying, ‘You’re not good enough; you need to do this; do that; improve your appearance and your image,’” she said.

Peucker developed an eating disorder, and she was not the only one: “There were four girls on my team with eating disorders…There’d be girls throwing up in our locker room. One girl threw up during the halftime of a game after binging on power bars, and you just can’t have that. It’s not safe,” she said. She chose to leave the team as a part of her recovery to avoid seeing these toxic but community-approved practices.

The basketball team does appear to be making healthy steps forward, however. An anonymous team member who started playing this fall feels that the group is accepting of a variety of body types and is active in its prevention of disordered eating. “There’s someone on the team who has the duty of watching us to make sure people are having healthy diets and don’t show signs for eating disorders,” she said. Should this measure be effective, it would counteract the nationwide phenomenon that eating disorders that are two to three times more common in college athletes than in nonathletic college students.

Females and female athletes are not the only ones at risk, however. Statistical research suggests that men suffer from eating disorders at a rate disproportionate to their relative absence from conversations on this topic. Approximately one in a hundred women suffer from anorexia, as do approximately one in three hundred men—a much smaller, but significant number.

At the body narratives, the only male submission was submitted anonymously. Elizabeth Bryan ’17 argued that a cause for this discrepancy may be that body image has been branded an exclusively “women’s issue.”

“Society in general is not set up for men to talk about their body insecurities,” Bryan said. Ryan Hara ’18 presented another explanation in addition to Brian’s: “It could either be a good thing or a bad thing: guys are comfortable in their bodies, or…guys feel bad about speaking out about their body. I think it might be a little bit of both.”

Anxiety from the “hookup” culture at Colby is also a source of added stress for students struggling with body image.  Although she would shy away from the hookup scene, said Peucker, she felt some pressure to conform to a man’s image of an ideal hookup: “That also contributed to [my eating disorder]—not entirely, but it did.”

Hara also avoids the hookup scene but imagines that it “probably adds to body issues. If you go to a party to hookup with someone…nothing about your personality matters really because you’re just going out to get laid. I’m sure there are people out there who are like, ‘I’m not good-looking enough to go out there and have someone pick me up.’” 

Getting help is essential for those struggling to handle this endemic problem by themselves. Counseling services are available to students at the Garrison-Foster Health Center.

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