Specifically, the events included an informational meeting and workshop Friday night and two longer workshops during the day Saturday and Sunday. According to attendee Benedict Nguyen ’15, the workshops and discussions were primarily focused on developing leadership.
Executive Director of the Body Positive Connie Sobczak facilitated the workshops and discussions. She was pleased with the events, noting the small sizes of the groups as a benefit. “The workshops and discussions went very well. The small groups allowed for increased intimacy and a deeper discussion of the issues, especially in each of the day-long workshops on Saturday and Sunday. The students were excited to carry the work forward on their own, which is the purpose of The Body Positive’s leadership work.”
Nguyen agreed. According to him, “The smaller group made things really intimate.” One of the main reasons the Body Positive came to Vassar was the increased prevalence of self-destructive eating behaviors that exists on college campuses. According to Sobczak, college is a time when these sorts of behaviors become common.
Sobczak went on to mention specific reasons for this increased phenomenon. In an emailed statement, she wrote, “Restriction leads to bingeing, so once away from restrictive parental control, young people often struggle with knowing when, what, and how much to eat. There is also a tremendous amount of pressure on college students to be perfect in every way. Competition in the classroom extends into the social world where people who attain societal beauty ideals are rewarded with attention. This pressure leads to obsession with thinness and beauty, which quickly translates into disordered eating and exercise behaviors.”
Nguyen agreed with this idea, confirming that the issue of unhealthy body image is a real, if sometimes less visible problem discussed at Vassar. “I feel like Vassar students care a lot about their bodies but they don’t talk about caring,” he said.
In the discussions, Sobczak spoke of the origins of the problems people have with their bodies. She mentioned social media and the pressure it puts on people who are constantly on display. Though this can be powerful causation for body issues, Sobczak noted “…what we’ve found to be true at The Body Positive is that the most damaging messages come from the people who are close to us. A negative comment from a parent is never forgotten.”
Sobczak continued, challenging the way in which health advisors and the medical community have tried to solve problems of “overweightness and obesity” in America.
“Another primary influence on body hatred today comes from the double-binding messages given to children (and adults) by the medical community and public health about ‘obesity’ and health. People today are hammered with messages about the evils of fat. The messages are often interpreted by children and teens to mean that every person should at all times be trying to lose weight. There is evidence that links the rise in eating disorders to the weight loss messages given to children,” wrote Sobczak.
Vassar Student and member of Body Positive Vassar Maranda Barry ’16 echoed this idea. “The other, wrong message is so pervasive. Its sanctioned and backed up by doctors and scientists, our parents and professors. It is dangerous and all over the place,” she said.
Barry continued, “The point is that this kind of medical evaluation of bodies needs to be done on a case-by-case basis. You can’t start making generalizations.”
Barry spoke optimistically of the growth of Body Positive Vassar, a group she hopes will become a VSA organization next year. “It could really be a widespread group of people,” she noted.
Another theme in the events this weekend was the universal reach of body image problems and self-destructive behaviors. People struggling with these issues can be anyone. As Sobczak noted, “Eating disorders do not discriminate based on ethnicity, socioeconomic class, or age. Body hatred has become an equal opportunity problem.”
Sobczak concluded, “Because we know that people will be at their optimum health when they focus on balanced self-care behaviors rather than the number on the scale, we encourage people to give up their scales, trust that they have a genetically inherited “natural” weight range, and listen to their bodies deeply to know how to care for themselves in a beautiful, loving way.”