Obsession. Embarrassment. Looking in the mirror and never feeling good enough. Seeing the number on the scale and sinking.
In a world where dieting, losing weight and being considered physically attractive are normal conversation topics, loving your physique can be difficult. Webster students of all genders, sizes and builds battle with negative body image. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of feeling awkward in those tiny Webster Hall desks, other times the issue can be as severe as starving yourself to achieve the figure society will accept.
Mallory Engelhardt, junior international relations and French double major, has intermittently struggled with body image since she was twelve years old.
“[Body image is] something that definitely affects you on a day-to-day basis,” Engelhardt says. “You’re constantly criticizing and scrutinizing all of your choices, and comparing yourself to others in every aspect. It makes i
t really hard, almost impossible, to live your life.”
Every semester, Women and Gender Studies Professor Andrea Miller has students reach out to her concerning their personal body issues.
“I’ve had very thin students talk to me about how they were troubled by people who just assumed they were anorexic, because their bones protruded and it was just part of their build,” Miller says. “I’ve also had fat positive advocates who didn’t have a problem with their body, but they would tell me stories about people who did have a problem with it.”
Some of Miller’s students have even taken medical leaves of absence from Webster to receive in-patient care regarding body disorders.
The Body Image Battle
Sophomore elementary education major Moriah Boyce became concerned with her appearance as a child gymnast. Boyce recalls several of the gymnasts grappling with eating problems, including herself. At eight years old, she would eat just enough to avoid collapsing during a gym routine.
“When I was a little girl, I was actually about 10-15 pounds underweight, but even then I thought my stomach stuck out too much in my uniforms. I hated it,” Boyce says.
Although Boyce is at a medically healthy weight today, she constantly feels troubled by people who say she is too thin.
“I feel like I can’t even wear certain clothes because of it,” Boyce says. “I’m embarrassed that I’m thought of as too skinny. People will even tell me, ‘Oh, you need to get some meat on your bones.’ So I’ll do things like pull my shirt out or wear a jacket to make myself look a little bigger.”
Despite the comments, Boyce still feels pressure to stay thin because she feels it is what society promotes as beautiful. Engelhardt believes that the way figures are portrayed in media highly influences perceptions of what people should look like.
“With celebrities and Hollywood, there’s just this mindset that even if you aren’t being photoshopped, you have to look a certain way,” Engelhardt says.
Her junior year of high school, Engelhardt began a strict diet and exercise regimen because she felt she had gained too much weight. For a few years she explored various diets, losing and gaining back weight but never feeling entirely good about herself.
“It was like I couldn’t even enjoy a meal anymore because I was constantly freaking out about how many calories everything had,” Engelhardt says.
Engelhardt recently found a body positivity-themed Instagram account, which she says helped spark a life-changing moment for her mentality.
“I realized I had spent so long obsessing over getting myself healthy, but that’s not actually what I was doing. I cared more about if I was as skinny as my cousin, or a certain friend. I didn’t actually care about whether I could run a mile in a certain amount of time.”
For senior audio production major Shane Jenne, living a healthy lifestyle is essential. Through long, social dinners and access to the cafeteria buffet during his freshman year of college, Jenne found himself at a personal high of 270 pounds.
“It was embarrassing to get up from a booth at a restaurant, making sure that my shirt was pulled down — making sure I wasn’t hanging out,” Jenne says. “I thought people were going to talk about me when I was getting food. I knew it was time for a change after that.”
Because men are not stereotypically pressured into being “small” like women, many people fail to recognize that men struggle with body image as well. Jenne believes that they simply don’t talk about the issue as often as women.
Jenne began his health journey by participating in Brazilian jiu jitsu and landing a job at the Webster fitness center. Although his body underwent a transformation, he wasn’t interested in behemoth biceps or a chiseled chest.
“It’s not an ego thing — I want to be fully functional,” Jenne says. “I want to be able to get up and off the floor at age 70, and I want to be able to play with my grandkids.”
Jenne feels so passionately about his lifestyle change and helping change other people’s lives that he plans to disregard his major to pursue a career in health and fitness.
Criticism from “concerned” family and friends, absorption of media messages from ceaseless sources and other influences can make it a challenge, but Boyce, Jenne and Engelhardt demonstrate that regaining body positivity is possible.
Miller encourages her students to push back against society’s standards.
“Very few of us — men and women — meet typical body ideals,” Miller says. “You must remember that the reason there are so many beauty products is because someone is making money off of you feeling bad about yourself.
They’re not going to sell diet pills through an advertisement on feeling great about your body.”
Boyce recommends counseling or support groups for anyone struggling with negative body image or eating disorders. Jenne advises not to take any negative comments personally.
“Nothing others do or say is because of you,” Jenne says. “When you’re immune to their opinions and their actions, you won’t be a victim of needless suffering.”
Engelhardt suggests that surrounding oneself with positive people, in real life and online, is important in opening one’s mind to accepting positivity.
“If you wouldn’t say it to somebody else, you shouldn’t say it to yourself,” Engelhardt says. “I think people underestimate how powerful it is to be nice to yourself. Don’t stop yourself from getting pizza because you’re worried about having to run five miles on the treadmill. There’s a lot more to life than worrying about always being perfect.”
Story: Julia Peschel
Photo: Jeannie Liautaud