Let's say you're standing in the checkout line at the supermarket buying a package of Double Stuf Oreo cookies. You glance at the glossy magazines, and see Kate Upton, Beyoncé, and Channing Tatum represented. You might feel like you can't possibly live up to these superhuman physical specimens. You look down again at those Oreos, and suddenly guilt and defeat engulf you.
Oh, and when the world's most beautiful celebrities tell People magazine about how they overcame their chubby childhood and teenage acne? That doesn't make you feel any better.
Millions of people are insecure about their body shapes and sizes. At American University, both researchers and campus services have addressed problems created by body image. It's one way in which AU scholarship and programming have coincided to tackle an issue that concerns many students.
Research with a Purpose
Over the summer, Sarah Godoy finished up her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at AU. Her dissertation is titled, "Exploration of a Dissonance-Based Body Dissatisfaction Intervention." In conducting her research, she set up a group-based intervention for female students (ages 18 through 30, from AU and other universities), most of whom currently struggle with body image or previously grappled with these issues. In a sense, Godoy was doing innovative research and helping young women in the process.
"Body dissatisfaction generally means when people are dissatisfied with their body weights or their body shapes. And for women, it tends to mean that they wish that they were thinner or smaller, and that idea is referred to as the 'thin ideal,'" Godoy says.
She developed workshop-style groups, based on three specific conditions. One was called the "healthy weight condition" and dealt with balancing nutritional eating and exercise. It emphasized health over thinness.
Two other group conditions revolved around cognitive dissonance (thin ideal dissonance and values-based dissonance). Godoy explains how your brain can't really hold two notions—thin is ideal, thin is not essential—together at the same time. "So we just talked about the pros and cons of pursuing the thin ideal, and we started considering, 'What are the alternatives? What are really the risks of pursuing this? What might be a better way of living?'" she says.
In talking about values and identities, students considered how aiming for the thin ideal can be disruptive and unwise. Some women explored this through their religious beliefs. "'They might say, 'My spirituality is very important to me. If I try to change the body, or if I try to devalue the body God gave me, that's not compatible with what I actually value," Godoy recounts. Women also discussed how striving to be skinny is time-consuming and could ultimately take a toll on friendships.
At the completion of the project, Godoy was pleased with the results. "We saw improved body image, improved self-esteem, and decreased internalization of the thin ideal."
Convincing students to be content with their bodies is no easy feat. There is an inordinate amount of pressure to be thin and attractive in an image-driven society. The Hollywood celebrity factory puts a high premium on a certain type of physical—and arguably unattainable—appearance. Facebook and Instagram openly invite people to judge what old acquaintances look like these days.
Godoy says that young female college students are at a particularly vulnerable age. "It's really hard when you're going through a time of transition," she says. "You're exploring your own identity, and trying to figure out who you are. And you're away from home;it stirs up a lot of insecurity."
As much pressure as there is on young women, Godoy says many men deal with similar body image issues. Again, this can emanate from media images. Men may want to look more muscular, which is sometimes referred to as a mesomorphic ideal.
Amanda Rahimi is assistant director for outreach and consultation in the AU Counseling Center. She did her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at George Mason University, and she did research on how women of color deal with eating disorders and body image concerns. She found that some African-American women were less enamored with the thin ideal. "They may think it's good to have a curvy body, it's good to have hips, it's good to have breasts. And when someone doesn't have those characteristics, they may experience some body image dissatisfaction as a result of that."
But Rahimi stresses that each person is different, and Godoy adds that the thin ideal is spreading beyond the province of white women.
Godoy, who is now doing post-doctoral research at the University of Michigan, first took interest in body image issues and eating disorders during her undergraduate years at Vassar College. She was influenced by Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher—herself an AU alumna. At AU, Godoy was part of the Body Image Research Group, a clinical research laboratory directed by psychology professor James Gray.
Other AU faculty members have done research in this general area. For instance, history professor Katharina Vester has examined the power relations inherent in discussions surrounding body ideals.
The Counseling Center helps students through individual and group sessions. Rahimi and others do presentations and workshops on campus related to eating concerns and body image matters. And the center also offers educational materials on its website and has an in-house self-help library. Outside the Counseling Center, students can get assistance from Jo-Ann Jolly, a registered dietitian for AU Dining.
Advice in dealing with this problem varies on a case-by-case basis. "In general, we try to help students understand the roots of their body image concerns, and the experiences that might have contributed to this," Rahimi says. "But ultimately, we try to help students work towards self-acceptance."