You Are Not What You Don't Eat: Women's Center's Eating Disorders Program Focuses on Positive – and Real – Body Images

March 4, 2010 — Fifty-four percent of women would rather be hit by a truck than be fat. No wonder nearly 10 million females (and 1 million males) in the U.S. are battling eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, while millions more suffer from binge eating.

Studies show that on college campuses, approximately 60 percent of women students have "disordered eating," meaning they use food to resolve underlying emotional issues – a precursor to developing anorexia or bulimia. About 20 percent of college students already have had, or are currently living with, an eating disorder.

Confronting these health issues and changing the culture related to them is the purpose of the University of Virginia's Women's Center's Eating Disorders Program. One of the biggest programs they present, "Celebrate Every Body Week," took place Feb. 22 through 26, but the work of prevention goes on throughout the academic year.

The program's education coordinator, Amy Chestnutt, is an alumna whose part-time job focuses on planning events and activities that emphasize eating disorder prevention. The program is seen as a national model because of having a staff counselor devoted to this issue, said Charlotte Chapman, director of counseling services, who oversees the eating disorders program.

The criteria for diagnoses of eating disorders are very specific, Chestnutt said, but a range of behaviors falls into the wide category of "disordered eating." People can be preoccupied with food and body image, or doing certain things to compensate for their eating habits – even something supposedly healthy, like exercising, which can be done to excess – that become risk factors for developing into a full-blown eating disorder.

The programs aim to bring awareness of the unhealthy costs of pursuing the cultural ideal of ultra-thinness and how to accept more positive body images.

The Eating Disorders Program, in collaboration with U.Va.'s Coalition on Eating Disorders and Exercise Concerns, sponsors activities all year-long, including the "Reflections" program for women in first-year dormitories. The main public program in the fall, "Perfect Illusions," consists of a vigil where participants can speak out on how the cultural ideal and eating disorders have affected them.

The programs emphasize the signs and symptoms of eating disorders and disordered eating, and provide information on how to help a friend or family member. Referrals are made where needed. Other events include guest speakers or performances related to the mission of promoting healthy body image. In addition, a Web site that offers information and resources has drawn a lot of traffic, Chestnutt said.

The Coalition on Eating Disorders and Exercise Concerns comprises the Women's Center, the offices of Residence Life and Greek Life, the Elson Student Health Center, Counseling and Psychological Services, Athletics, Student Affairs and Dining Services.

"Reflections" offers college women a program to establish and maintain a positive body image. So far, two interactive, staff- and peer-led groups of about 12 first-year female students have gone through a two-day intervention program designed by experts for college campuses throughout North America. The program emphasizes creating and reaffirming positive and healthy personal body images through a variety of structured discussions, activities and exercises. (To learn more visit www.bodyimageprogram.org.)

Media literacy is a big thing, Chestnutt said. "We showed touch-ups of models to look at how they're not real. The participants know they're not real, but still compare themselves," she said. "In 'Reflections,' we ask, 'What is your self-talk? Is it positive or negative?' Pay attention to what you're saying to yourself all day long."

She suggests that when women look in the mirror, they compliment themselves about their positive attributes, for instance.

Self-talk is one tool that can be used to change the way individuals perceive themselves. Another behavior the groups target is conversational – and contagious – "fat talk."

"I'm so fat." "No, you're not. I'm so fat."

"Oh, you look great! Have you lost weight?"

"That dress looks good on you. It's so slimming."

These comments aren't really compliments, Chestnutt said, because they reinforce negative body images by focusing on the idea that looking good is related to smaller or thinner body size.

"Why not just say, 'That dress looks good on you?' I've had women tell me they've just been really sick, and someone will tell them they look good because they've lost weight," she said.

One event during Celebrate Every Body Week was devoted to advice on how to have a healthy spring break, which begins at U.Va. this weekend.

Several alumnae and the U.Va. Parents Fund have stepped forward to support the Eating Disorders Program,  Chapman said, but it doesn't yet have the permanent funding to ensure the work of creating "a body-positive community" at U.Va., where everyone enjoys a healthy relationship with food, exercise and body image.