More than 30 percent of college students have an eating disorder, with many more developing significant disturbances with body image and preoccupations with weight and diet. Whether it is the influence of parents, peers, the fashion industry or the images in the media, young men and women cannot seem to escape the pressure to be “skinnier” and attain “perfection.” In addition to these socio-cultural influences, the college environment can exacerbate the development of an eating disorder, as the adjustment to college and the challenge of finding new friends can be stressful. Despite its prevalence, many college students do not seek treatment and spend years in denial about their condition, which can lead to permanent health damage and even death. The founders of the Perfectly Unperfected Project (PUP) are trying to replace this distorted image of beauty with one that is more authentic.
PUP is a nonprofit initiative trying to transform how young men and women think and feel about their bodies by giving multimedia workshops. These informative presentations give young people insight to the images used by the beauty and fashion industries, and help to change the way that people think about the images they see on a daily basis. It was founded by model Katie Halchishick and Dr. Hugo Schwyzer and is the outreach arm of Healthy is the New Skinny (HNS), a campaign that aims to change the way young adults think about beauty, health and happiness.
The organization is launching its Southern California tour at UC Los Angeles this fall and is following with a tour of Pacific Northwestern schools, where the various presenters hope to spread the message to high school and college students that they are all “perfectly unperfected.”
After surveying girls around the country, Halchishick and her team found that 90 percent of the girls admitted to skipping meals, not eating at all and/or binging and purging in order to lose weight. “They are bombarded everyday with this image of a super skinny, glamorous girl with big boobs, and that’s not even real,” Halchishick explained. “These images of girls who fit this unrealistic stereotype are everywhere — on advertisements, television shows, magazines. We are giving people this false image of what guys like and how girls should be.”
Many girls who said they were a size 4 or 5 believed they were fat and desired to be a size 2 or 0. They also discovered that most girls would starve themselves or work out excessively if it would make them look like models. “Losing weight is celebrated in our culture,” Halchishick said. “Research shows that girls’ number one wish is to be skinnier, but their number one wish should be to be healthy.”
In an article in the Huffington Post, Jamie Fenton, a psychologist and coordinator of eating disorder services at Towson University, stated that the unrealistic idea of a “skinny girl” could be heavily attributed to the media. Students are influenced by the messages sent in the media, as they convince students that the body shapes and sizes on the magazine covers are the only acceptable ones. And, since the majority of students do not represent the narrow definition of beauty, the desire to be “perfect” can lead to feelings of inadequacy about their body shape and size. Body dissatisfaction often leads to dieting, which in turn leads to pathological dieting and eating disorders.
Alex Ferguson, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise, is currently a model with NMM and an adamant supporter of HNS. She tried modeling for the first time when she was 17, but was told by a modeling agency that she was too old to start modeling. And even though she was 5’10” and weighed 115 pounds, she was also told her cheeks were too big and that there was “something wrong” with her stomach.
“So many girls at this point are growing up with a false image of what beauty is, and I want girls to know it’s okay to be curvy and that there are so many different body types,” said Ferguson. “I hope they can grow up and accept who they are.”
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, most fashion models are thinner than 98 percent of American women. And while the average woman is 5’4” tall and weighs 140 pounds, the average model is 5’11” tall and weighs 117 pounds. Research shows this disparity has a profound affect on society and contributes to negative body image, as over 10 million females and 1 million males in the U.S. suffer from an eating disorder.
“No one talks about eating disorders,” Halchishick said. “Everyone’s afraid to touch the subject; it’s almost taboo in a sense, but when you open that can of worms and talk about it, you begin to realize that everyone feels the same way.”
Danika Brysha, a recent graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder, believes HNS will allow young people to come together and address society as a whole, bringing the issue of body image to the surface. And though she acknowledges that changing society’s outlook on something takes a long time, she has no doubt that the response to the program will be positive and that many people will jump onboard the campaign.
“Hearing the stories of those who have suffered similarly in an effort to appear beautiful, thin or perfect in order to fit the ideals of society, will allow others to really look inside themselves and question their own health and self-acceptance issues,” explained Brysha.
While Halchishick believes HNS will boost young people’s self-esteem and confidence, she also acknowledges the fact that these positive sentiments can fade. That is why her company is taking a realistic approach by promoting a healthy lifestyle and providing positive reinforcement through a multi-platform approach: the Internet (HNS), the industry (NMM) and face-to-face (PUP).
Natalie Michajla, a junior at Montana State University, believes promoting healthy models will make a difference and hopes young girls can learn to stick to a healthy lifestyle without hurting their bodies. “Staying positive, exercising and eating healthy allowed me to feel better about myself,” explained Michajla. “With confidence, I have learned to appreciate and love who I am. I am not trying to be someone else or who another person wants me to be, and I hope young girls will begin to feel the same way I do.”
Halchishick reminds young men and women that everyone deserves to have a happy life, no matter their size or age, and encourages them to have a healthy relationship with their body; “In order to have a healthy body image you need to take care of yourself and be happy, and that comes in all different sizes.”
According to the National Eating Disorders Association:
- 91 percent of college women have attempted to control their weight through dieting.
- 81 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat.
- 42 percent of 1st to 3rd grade girls want to be thinner.
- More than half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting and taking laxatives.
- Despite its prevalence, there is insufficient research funding for eating disorders and inadequate insurance coverage for treatment.
For information on getting invovled, email Angela Jones at [email protected].