Students Facilitate Body Image Dialogue

Julia Herbst, News Editor

Despite recent studies challenging ideas that a person’s weight is indicative of overall health, many people still experience weight stigma. At Oberlin, several students are working to create spaces on campus to discuss body image and fat acceptance.

Numerous studies suggest that body weight can be a poor indicator of overall health. One such study by researchers at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University found that Type 2 diabetes patients with a normal body weight are more than twice as likely to die as overweight and obese Type 2 diabetes patients. This phenomenon, which scientists have termed the “obesity paradox,” has been shown to exist with other conditions as well, including kidney disease, stroke and heart failure.

“Basically the assumption around being fat is that you’re unhealthy, and we talk a lot about how anybody can be unhealthy at any size, and maybe that’s not even a problem,” said College senior Naomi Pomerantz, who co-leads the Body Positivity and Fat Acceptance ExCo. “Health is also a complicated word that has many definitions for different people. … By focusing on health, specifically on one’s weight as an indicator of health, [one can] often ignore a person as a whole.”

Negative stereotypes and misinformation about obesity often leads to discrimination in doctors’ offices, workplaces and schools. According to a study by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, the pervasiveness of discrimination based on weight is comparable to rates of racial discrimination in the United States.

College senior Magdalena Newhouse, the other leader of the body positivity ExCo, hopes that increased awareness and conversations about body image can help clarify misconceptions about health and weight at Oberlin.

“A lot of people conflate weight and health. I think Oberlin students are less likely to say ‘I’m concerned about my weight,’ but they will say ‘I’m concerned about my health’ and mean ‘I’m concerned about my weight,’” said Newhouse. “We talk a lot about eating in co-ops [in the ExCo] and how sometimes people are so exacting about eating healthy food that it becomes … code for body image issues.”

An ExCo’s Approach

Pomerantz and Newhouse developed the Body Positivity and Fat Acceptance ExCo in the fall of 2011 to create a space for conversation about body image and the fat positivity movement on campus.

“We both felt there was a lack of dialogue about these issues on campus,” said Newhouse. “We kind of wanted to fill that gap, especially because Oberlin is such a place of people talking about anti-oppression … [and] about social justice issues. [There was] no organized movement for fat acceptance on campus, [and] people also didn’t really talk about it. There’s not even that much awareness of these issues and this movement, which is getting pretty big.”

This semester’s ExCo, in which 16 students are enrolled, is part academic criticism and part “feel-good workshop.”

“[Newhouse] came at it from the fat-blogs sort of sphere, which I didn’t know much about, and I came at it from an academic-type sphere,” said Pomerantz. “I wrote a paper about fat activism and queer theory … and so I read a lot of academic texts.”

A Modern Movement

Much of the Fat Positivity movement was initially developed online through blogs such as Shapely Prose, Fatshionista (now called Two Whole Cakes) and The Rotund. Newhouse and Pomerantz have noticed a more recent shift in fat positive activism and discussions to other types of sites such as Tumblr. This has diversified the movement, though some activists express concern over how welcoming this community can be.

“What’s interesting is that a lot of peoples’ first introductions to fat acceptance is through online activism and the blog world,” said Newhouse. “When we first taught the class last year, we certainly got a few applications saying that ‘this is something I read a lot about [online],’ but this semester we got a lot of people saying that ‘this is something I read a lot about on Tumblr,’ which we hadn’t gotten before. … It was like suddenly there was more visibility on Tumblr, which is great.”

The Role of the Classroom

Many of those involved with body image work on campus are trying to encourage discussions outside the classroom as well.

“We had some people in the class talking about hearing about these issues in [Comparative American Studies] classes, that they’d taken classes where this had come up in the context of feminism or other social justice movements. Which is great. I think that’s fabulous,” said Newhouse. “A lot of the issues that we’ve talked about have to deal with the overall student body, and that’s obviously a really hard thing to address because it’s the community as a whole. Like, people have talked about how the overall student body of Oberlin, there’s a very specific image of an Oberlin student and that’s just hard to get around.”

Some students, like College senior Lexie Bean, who recently published a body-positive book called Attention: People With Body Parts, expressed concern that some Oberlin students may feel excluded by academic discussions about body image.

“I think [body image] is something that students want to talk about. However, a lot of the times when it is talked about, it’s put in a very political way, which can be isolating for people or is something that’s just in the classroom,” said Bean. “Like [in] CAST classes. I think CAST is a really great department. However, they can sometimes create an ‘us versus them’ complex, and if someone who is in a stigmatized group, like a white, straight male – people who should also have access to body education and have the opportunity to learn about privilege – [that person] can be afraid and isolated in those settings.”

Body-Positive Project

Attention: People With Body Parts, an ongoing project in which contributors write letters to a part of their body, is one attempt at expanding the body image discussion to include more people.

Bean was inspired to create the project after studying abroad in Hungary with American students from other universities and realizing that many of them were struggling with their bodies and standards of beauty. Upon returning to Oberlin, she contacted friends and asked them to contribute letters. She funded the project through Kickstarter, and the book is now available for purchase on Amazon. Bean is still accepting submissions online and is looking to make the project as accessible as possible.

“There [are] a lot of really messed up parts of our culture with reference to bodies,” said College senior David Tisel, who wrote one of the letters in the book. “[There are] a lot of people who have different complexes about [their bodies] and it’s a big part of … their experience, and self-image is related to their bodies. It’s hard to be able to really honestly confront that in this culture that we have. So this sort of opens up a little way for people to confront that, which is cool.”

Bean has found the project rewarding in many ways.

“Most of the responses I’ve gotten have been really positive in discussing intersectionalities and knowing that everyone has some sort of body trauma or relationship that needs to be unfolded,” said Bean. “One of the really satisfying things is that a lot of the letters talk about a journey and the complexity of that. However, a lot of them end with love. They’re signed with ‘love.’… After reading some of them, [you can see that] it obviously took some of them a long time to be able to write that at the end of the letter to themselves.”

For contributors like College senior Laura Grothaus, the experience of writing a letter for the project was both challenging and fulfilling.

“It was actually really a cool experience, but very time-consuming because … for me, a lot of the narratives are very connected, and body parts hold so many stories that just kind of tracing one of them in a piece of writing was difficult,” said Grothaus. “Ultimately, it was really cathartic.”

Other Resources

The Office of Student Wellness recently began the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment Web Survey, which many students received electronically during November.

“[We] will have a better snapshot of the issues once this research is complete,” said Lori Flood, associate dean and director of wellness and health promotion, in an e-mail to the Review. “We will be better able to speak to … how Oberlin students are doing in terms of alcohol [or] drug use/abuse, stress [and] mental well-being, physical fitness [and] eating habits once the assessment is complete.”

Flood suggested a variety of resources that exist on campus for students who may be struggling with an eating disorder or body image issues, including class deans, the Multicultural Resource Center, Counseling Center, Student Health, a registered dietician through Campus Dining Services and athletic coaches.

“I think we have a lot of work to do in terms of promoting messages about positive body image and self-esteem,” said Flood. “We need to match an intervention with a prioritized issue. We also need to identify barriers to accessing resources and remove them. I think we need to help some students feel more confident in their bodies and work to offer support and education on improving body image. Eating healthy, moving, feeling good about living in your body — these are achievable with the right support, encouragement, resources and environment.”