As members of a society entrenched in social media’s unrealistic imagery and expectations, high school students are surrounded by messages regarding various aspects of their lives, in particular, body image.
In recent years, IMSA has administered a Diversity Climate Survey through the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. In 2021, out of 454 respondents, 195 students felt unsafe on campus. The majority of them, 70 students, indicated that they felt unsafe due to their body size. The percentage of students who have felt unsafe on IMSA’s campus due to body size has increased since 2018, from 2.6% to 3.1% in 2021 (IMSA Digital Commons).
The data indicates that body image has clearly influenced IMSA students—yet what has been done to address this concern?
Events such as IMSA’s Gender Equity Association’s (GEA) Body Positivity Week and Council for Campus Equity’s (CCE) Courageous Conversation Surrounding Body Image work to have our community engage in discourse surrounding body image, particularly on IMSA’s campus.
GEA co-presidents Sajal Shukla and Shanan Riley explained that, “Body Positivity week went really well last year—the GEA members that planned it were able to successfully hold several events and activities throughout the week to educate people on campus about the issue and encourage body inclusivity.” A highlight of the week was the midday affirmation cards event where they, “had so many people show up to write positive messages about themselves, and it was amazing to see students promoting self-love on campus.” When asked how the student body could make IMSA’s campus more inclusive and welcoming towards students of varying body types, they note, “…that to promote body positivity, we can start by striving to develop a positive body image of ourselves. Practicing affirmations, avoiding comparing ourselves to others, and surrounding ourselves with encouraging people are great ways to practice body positivity!”
Speaking with Maitreyi Pandey, a member of CCE’s research team, regarding CCE’s Courageous Conversation on Body Image at IMSA yielded different results. While only ten students were present, Pandey says that, “the people at the event were involved in the conversation. People were consistently answering the questions we asked and everyone was respectful.” Sadly, when asked whether there has been any response from student leaders regarding what they have learned, the answer was a resolute no. Not to fear, Pandey explained how CCE has been working closely with residential life members, such as Hall Diversity Coordinators (HDC) and Residential Student Leaders (RSL) to continue discourse regarding body image within their halls/wings, “so that the responses we get are more personal than through a survey or form.”
CCE made the right decision in targeting residential life when addressing students’ views regarding body image on campus. IMSA’s unique residential environment poses specific challenges towards body positivity within the community. Pandey detailed how at the Courageous Conversation, the response to a question asking how IMSA has affected the way students view themselves was that, “IMSA’s workaholic culture kind of glorifies unhealthy habits like skipping meals and not having time for lunch because people are working through midday and dinner times.” One of their key takeaways from the conversation was that, “people really need to stop bragging about how little they eat, and need to start prioritizing themselves and healthier habits.”
IMSA’s residential nature also allows students to live on their own schedules and have complete control over their own eating habits. Pandey finds this especially concerning as, “Teenagers are easily susceptible to body image issues because of stuff we see in the media, etc, and IMSA kids are free to take whatever steps they want to reach these unhealthy body standards. No one is reminding them that working through lunch/dinner times or purposely skipping meals is unhealthy, and there are no parents to notice that this is happening. We’re completely in control and if no one is emphasizing the importance of loving your body as it is, it could lead to really unhealthy eating habits, now and as adults.”
Continuing on the topic of food, many IMSA students find it difficult to maintain specific eating habits such as being vegetarian or vegan. Students describe how salads or a veggie burger are often their only choice of food. By providing a more inclusive menu and offering a variety of vegetarian, non-vegetarian, and vegan options, we can provide our students the resources to properly sustain and take care of themselves. If students perhaps feel less inclined to eat alone, it can be beneficial to simply offer some company and join friends for meals so that everyone feels motivated to grab some food and spend quality time together.
Finally, for many students, engaging in physical activity can be an excellent way to take care of one’s body. Yet, how can students expect to engage in physical fitness and activity at an unwelcoming fitness center. Shreya Chakraborty, class of 2023, describes her experience at the fitness center, finding that, “the fitness center was very male-dominated and that guys would watch as their friends performed exercises, making comments and judging them as they worked out. It’s intimidating for anyone who’s never been to the gym before or never worked out because it feels like everyone there already knows what they’re doing and that they’re judging anyone who doesn’t—it’s very intimidating to go alone.”
In the environment that has been cultivated at IMSA, built on a foundation of toxic productivity and meeting exceedingly high expectations, students are bound to feel discontent with their bodily image. However, whether it’s joining a friend to the fitness center or Lexington or encouraging others to think positively about their bodies, individuals can create meaningful change through their actions on campus.
While engaging with the IMSA community and encouraging others, it’s important to take care of and promote one’s own image.
So, take a look in the mirror—and smile at the person staring back.
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