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Stanford University School of Medicine

Promoting healthy eating and a positive body image on college campuses

Encouragement to focus on physical appearance in our culture often fuels negative body image and eating disorders. College students can be particularly susceptible to body image issues, and a past survey shows that eating disorders among college students have risen to affect 10 to 20 percent of women and four to 10 percent of men.

To create a social environment where healthy eating and a positive body image are the norm, Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott established The Body Positive initiative in 1996. The program provides youth and adults with tools and strategies to overcome self-destructive eating and exercise behaviors. This past year, the women worked with a group of Stanford students and staff members to change cultural beliefs of beauty and health on campus.

In celebration of the student-led movement, The Body Positive is hosting an event at the Stanford Women's Center this Sunday. During the event, attendees will be able to view students' art, hear them sing and speak out in celebration of their authentic beauty and learn more about their projects to support positive body attitudes. Below Scott discusses The Body Positive model, research at Stanford to measure the effectiveness of the approach, and ways that parents, educators and others can support young adults in developing a healthy body image.

What is it about the college experience that leads students be so critical of their body image and to struggle with eating disorders?

Students report many messages in the college environment that promote a preoccupation with body image and dieting — two risk factors in the development of an eating disorder. In the student community at college, there are a plethora of messages questioning students’ ability to trust their own bodies and promoting the idea that everyone can, and should, transform the size and shape of their bodies to meet a very slender ideal. Both men and women are susceptible to these messages. Women, however, are also trained to be ashamed of their appetites and ambitions and to shrink themselves and their passions. These messages are strengthened by peers who are also afraid that they are not okay as they are, especially freshman who are separated from their family and out in the world alone for the first time feeling uncertain about how to take care of themselves.

What motivated you and Connie to launch The Body Positive?

We founded The Body Positive to prevent eating disorders by teaching youth and adults to experience self-love, inhabit their unique beauty, and listen to the voice of wisdom within to guide sustainable, joyful self-care. Ultimately, our work is about freeing all people to pursue their life purpose and passions. Connie survived an eating disorder and then lost a sister to body hatred. She was motivated to change the world so her daughter, and all children, could grow up loving themselves and seeing beauty in their unique bodies. I was overwhelmed by the suffering of the people I was seeing as a new therapist in my practice in Marin County. I was shocked (and still am) to see so many young people suffering with body hatred and eating disorders and losing years of their lives. Being a social worker and an activist, I was motivated to transform the culture so that people could let go of the fruitless pursuit of transforming their bodies.

What advice can you offer to help parents, educators or others in establishing a social climate where healthy eating, a positive body image and excellent self-care are the norm?

Learn the Body Positive competencies! Learn to cultivate mercy for your impermanent and ever-changing body. Be a role model of self-love, especially to your children. Learn to be generous with yourself and develop peaceful, sustainable self-care behaviors so that you can gently return to balance when you are out of balance. Explore the ways your ancestors are represented in the natural size and shape of your body and celebrate those amazing survivors instead of fighting them. Trust the authority of your own body and test everyone else’s ideas about how you should take care of it against your own experience, like a true scientist. If you do all this you will be a great role model for others and that is the best way to create body positive community.

How was the Be Body Positive Model developed and how it is different than other approaches?

The Be Body Positive Model was developed from listening to the voices of the people we were trying to help, and trusting their intelligence and innate wisdom to guide us. We created the five competencies of our model by identifying the qualities that strengthened resilience against eating disorders and body image problems in the people of all ages with whom we worked. We have always promoted peer-to-peer education so that people can help each other on equal footing. We refined our model over the years with a fierce commitment to staying true to the people we work with by not giving them double-binding messages that lead to frustration and despair.

A primary goal of our teaching is to confront imbalances of power in the transmission of information that undermine the authority of the individual’s experience of their body. We work to strengthen a person’s confidence in their own intuitive connection to their self care, beginning at the most primitive level—knowing when to eat, what to eat, and when to stop.

Our model is different from other models in that we spend very little time talking about the problem. Most of our attention is placed on the solution. We also offer a framework for healing, not a prescriptive, step-by-step program that has someone else’s idea of success. In our model, success is defined by each individual who engages with the five competencies we teach. The end goal looks different for every person. The Be Body Positive Model offers a practical and alive way to become free of eating and body image issues.

Can you tell me about the student training at Stanford and the types of projects they are working on?

Nineteen students and six Stanford staff spent two days of the winter quarter in leadership training with The Body Positive. At the training, participants immersed themselves in a process of self-exploration and creative activities to learn about our Be Body Positive Model’s core competencies. We examined societal and familial messages about health and weight; how to become the expert of one’s own body and improve physical health through intuitive eating and exercise; why cultivating compassion for oneself and others leads to improved self-care; the power of declaring one’s own authentic beauty; and the importance of developing a supportive Body Positive community. The training included creative activities that allow participants to explore their own personal experiences, and to deeply embody the material they would be teaching to their peers.

In the spring quarter, student leaders teamed together to lead five groups in different residences to teach their peers the curriculum they learned in the training, and to develop a Body Positive culture at Stanford. Both leaders and participants are creating their own "This Is Beauty "art pieces and posting them on The Body Positive’s online gallery at to share with the world.

The Body Positive partnered with Megan Jones, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor in psychiatry and the director of Stanford’s Healthy Body Image Program, and Kristen Lohse, a second-year PsyD student, to evaluate the impact of The Body Positive’s peer-led model in the Stanford dorms. Data was collected from student leaders and student group participants at the beginning of their involvement with The Body Positive. They will complete these forms again at the end of the quarter and at two later dates for follow up. In this research, we are evaluating the impact of The Body Positive’s curriculum on student’s thoughts and opinions regarding weight, body image, body satisfaction and objectification, as well as social components of body image, students’ affect and their eating disorder symptoms.

Previously: Study: Bulimics may have difficulty perceiving their own heartbeat, Possible predictors of longer-term recovery from eating disorders and Exploring the connection between food and brain function

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