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Exploring Body Image

Katie Goldenberg

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Social Event Stress

From parties to pictures on vacation, many students face the pressure to change their eating or exercise habits to fit an appearance ideal at social gatherings.
“Everyone wants to fit in and be liked,” Upper Division Director of Counseling and Guidance Dr. Daniel Rothstein said. “It becomes unhealthy when it becomes your primary focus, and most of who you are becomes about how you look.”
Mahika Hari (12), who completed her Science Research project on how social factors like friendships influence body image, designed an anonymous survey of the student body to initially determine what aspect of body image she wanted to focus on, she said.
The survey included questions regarding eating habits, social events, and the Rosenberg scale of self-esteem, a questionnaire consisting of a series of statements designed to measure self-worth
Based on the survey responses, Hari identified a relationship between body image and the stability of a student’s friend group. The results found that a greater percentage of students who identified having unstable friend groups exercised for the purpose of impressing others.
Hari designed her survey questions regarding social gatherings with events like the Paradise Island (PI) trip, that many seniors take part in, and the Halloween Homecoming party in mind, she said.
According to two of the survey questions, 49.5% of polled students changed their exercise habits due to upcoming social occasions, and 51.5% altered their diets.
“I tried to change my diet for Homecoming and basically any social event where I feel like I would be taking a lot of pictures,” Gibby Thomas (11) said. For such occasions, Thomas and her friends will try to eat low carb foods or more salads at lunch, “but really nothing drastic, and we end up breaking it within the first couple of days,” she said.
“Sometimes I do feel stress surrounding these events, not just to look skinnier but to look good in general,” Thomas said.
“For things like PI, there’s motivation to get in shape,” Anya Swift (12) said. “I think it’s just the fact that you’re going to be in a bathing suit all day, there are going to be pictures, and you want to look your best.”
For the PI trip, many students begin a “Piet” in which they alter their diets and workout routines to lose weight, Swift said.
Josephine* has changed her workout schedule and notices other girls attending more workout classes with PI as an implicit motivation, she said.
“Sometimes I hear people comparing the calories of different foods when we go out to eat,” Josephine* said. “It shocks me because it’s a lot more extreme than how I usually talk about eating.”
“I would say I don’t know a single girl who hasn’t been through a period of using MyFitnessPal or generalized dysmorphia,” she said. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Body Dysmorphic Disorder is characterized by obsessive and obtrusive behavior surrounding an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance.
Sofia Gonzalez (12) will not attend PI but becomes more conscious of her habits when social events approach, using calorie counters and trying to get more exercise, she said.
“A lot of the time it can be difficult, because we don’t have a generally diverse community and that kind of contributes to this idea that girls at Horace Mann all have similar body types,” Gonzalez said. “As someone who doesn’t fit that norm, it definitely makes me extra conscious at social events.
Chloe Bown (12) maintains her regular habits despite social events but notices the “stress in the air” when such events are approaching, she said.
“It’s definitely case by case, but we’ve been in the age of social media, so since we were freshmen we saw pictures of seniors in PI or upperclassmen at Homecoming. I think that image definitely contributes to what everyone is trying to live up to by changing their habits,” she said.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), American adolescents between the ages of eight and 18 engage with some form of media for about seven and a half hours per day, and studies show that such exposure in media to the thin ideal is linked to negative body image, internalization of the thin ideal, and eating disorders amongst women.
“You can see that through all the comments on Instagram – when someone posts a picture, people comment, ‘so skinny,’” Hari said. “I think that there’s a lot on skinny rather than fit or healthy; I feel like it doesn’t matter how you get there, it’s the end result people are after, and I don’t think that we have enough education on how to get there the healthy way.”
The images portrayed in media and advertising often set unrealistic standards for beauty and attractiveness that impact both men and women, Rothstein said.
“It’s not just that they’re choosing people who have a certain perfect look, but the actual photographs are airbrushed and distorted,” he said. “I think it causes people a lot of real distress.”

Documenting Nutrition

For many students, tracking food intake and nutrition is a component of understanding their diet and overall health.
“You have to be aware of eating healthfully and different food groups and a general idea of how many calories you need in a day, but tracking very precisely can become obsessional,” Rothstein said.
“If you feel the need to know with such precision how many calories you’re consuming, I think it’s a good idea to consider why it’s so important to control that aspect of your life, because it can quickly take over your thought process, which becomes unhealthy,” psychologist Dr. Liz Westphal said.
In the ninth grade Biology curriculum, students participated in a lab involving the documentation of their diet and nutrient intake.
“The idea behind the lab was to track macronutrients as well as micronutrients, which are important to enzyme function, and to find out in which foods they are contained and whether you are getting enough of these important nutrients by analyzing your diet,” science teacher Dr. Lisa Rosenblum said.
The lab was discontinued when some students brought to the attention of teachers that the process was becoming more of a calorie counting exercise, Rosenblum said.
“Personally, I have a strong emotional reaction when I see people counting calories,” Josephine* said. “I generally think it’s unhealthy as a blanket just because I’ve seen it get so obsessive on other people and on myself because of the mindset to conform.”
Malka Krijestorac (11) found the lab to be helpful for students to see which nutrients they lacked in their diet, but believed the trackers were not completely accurate, she said.
“I know I just tweaked a couple things here and there,” she said. “I think people changed things just to seem healthier.”
Julia Roth (11) uses the “Lose It!” application to track her health and calories.
“I try to use it to be conscious about the decisions I make regarding food each day, and to be aware of balancing what I’ve eaten with the exercise I’ve done in that day,” she said. “If you’re watching the numbers, you don’t have to estimate and you can actually make better decisions. It’s not about continually lowering the numbers or trying to eat less, rather, it’s trying to eat better.”
Jolie Nelsen (9) observes negative discussion surrounding food intake within the lunchroom, she said.
“People are always saying they should lose weight or eat healthier, and some people make comments about what other people are eating,” she said.

Normalizing conversation involving negative body image often poses an obstacle to proper discussion.
“It’s important to have overall awareness within the community and the perspective that beauty changes over time – it’s not objective. In the real world, who we find attractive is a very individual thing,” Rothstein said. “Awareness can trickle into individual discussion, which can create a more open topic of conversation.”
Recent initiatives such as the Body Project, implemented by Joanna Kuang ’17 and Marissa Parks ’17 in the 2016 – 2017 school year, aimed to open the dialogue surrounding body image and promote positive body talk, Parks said.
“Before the Body Project, I didn’t think there was much discussion, and if there was it was more diet-talk, which tends to be negative,” she said.
“The comments might sound innocuous but they really show the underlying value we place on things like that,” Kuang said. “I would hear people making comments about other people’s bodies, how people dressed, how they presented themselves – it was really prevalent.”
Middle & Upper Division Chair of the Library Department Caroline Bartels, who taught two sections of the Body Project, believes the classes created valuable conversations and should be continued for both males and females, she said.
“It definitely had people thinking and talking about how females have to inhabit their own bodies,” Bartels said. “I think females are kind of at the point where they’re fed up, and that’s another reason I think it would be great to keep the Body Project going: to capitalize on this moment in time and history where women are saying, ‘we’re done’.”
According to Dean of Student Life Dr. Susan Delanty, the school is in contact with the NEDA, and there are active efforts to continue the Body Project program in the future for both male and female students.
The male curriculum, ‘More than Muscles’ is currently still a pilot program, and the Body Project will be reintroduced when the female as well as the parallel male programs can be implemented, she said.
Concerns surrounding body image extend beyond the high school community to Middle Division students.

Middle School Body Image
“Middle school is a time when kids begin to develop their own identities and better understand how they fit in with the world around them,” psychologist Dr. Christina Nichols said.
According to Life Skills teacher Norma Rodriguez, girls cover body image within the Life Skills curriculum starting in eighth grade, “even though I’m rethinking it – I think it should just start in sixth grade, simply because it’s a big transition for the kids,” she said.
“They’re going through puberty and all these changes, and for some of them it’s scary,” Rodriguez said. “Often girls will compare themselves to others when they look around and see people at different stages in development.”
Rodriguez facilitates conversation with articles, discussion surrounding factors that impact body image, and DVDs of real-life stories about the dangers of negative body image, she said.
Riya Daga (7) often notices her peers discussing weight.
“People talk about it constantly,” she said. “I hear people say things like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so fat, I shouldn’t eat this.’”
“When you look at magazines like Glamour, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, it’s always about how to improve ourselves,” Rodriguez said. “In other words, you shouldn’t be happy with yourself.”
“There’s so much we can do to keep reminding girls that you’re totally fine the way you are,” Bartels said. “I want us to get to a space where kids feel really good about themselves and we realize all body types are beautiful.”

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Exploring Body Image