Negative body image is one of the major factors which contributes to the development of eating disorders. Studies have shown that college-aged students, in particular, suffer from this dissatisfaction with their bodies. Beginning next fall, the Office of Health Promotion and Wellness is introducing the Peer Body Project, a peer-facilitated discussion space for Lewis & Clark students to talk about issues of body image, how cultural discourse favors certain body types over others and how these ideas relate to overall mental and physical health.
Part of a nationwide research project led by the Oregon Research Institute, the Peer Body Project will introduce free Body Project educational curriculum to colleges and universities. In exchange, colleges will act as test sites for the researchers’ curriculum delivery methods. Students and faculty alike are excited about the potential of the Peer Body Project.
Dorrell Thompson ’21 thinks that the Peer Body Project will be a valuable addition to LC.
“I think a program like this could be very beneficial, especially on a college campus where students are beginning to mold their young adult identity,” said Thompson.
The Peer Body Project recognizes that issues of body image are tightly intertwined with the occurrence of eating disorders. While this will not be an eating disorder support group, the program will potentially serve as an intervention for individuals who are struggling with negative eating patterns or body image issues. Associate Dean of Students for Health and Wellness and Chief Psychologist John Hancock said that while eating disorders are not at an unprecedented level at LC right now, body image is always an important factor in students’ overall wellness.
“We know that across the nation, young people are very vulnerable to these conditions, (such as) anorexia, bulimia, binge eating; these are disorders that cut across gender, they cut across socioeconomic class,” Hancock said. “There are really serious and potentially life-threatening consequences for eating disorders.”
Individuals with anorexia are six times more likely to die prematurely, while those suffering from bulimia are twelve times more likely to die prematurely. Other health conditions can also result from long periods of disordered eating, such as osteoporosis, organ failure and gastrointestinal distress. The Peer Body Project aims to improve students’ body image before an eating disorder can develop. Furthermore, the project could serve as a conduit for larger cultural change. One of the goals of the project is to foster a more inclusive view of beauty, and to encourage students to embrace self acceptance rather than working towards an unhealthy or unattainable ideal of thinness.
Hancock said that students have shown a lot of interest so far, revealing a desire to discuss the often taboo topic of body image.
Associate Director of Case Management Aimee Polzin, who has worked with individuals with eating disorders in the past, has high hopes for the program and noted its relevance on a college campus. Polzin believes that through active and sensitive discussion, expectations around body image can change.
“I think the main thing we can do is change the culture, and you can’t change the culture around our feelings around our bodies without talking about it,” Polzin said.
The discussion-based model is particularly appealing. Not only is it a space for students to gain leadership skills in the public health arena, but Polzin additionally emphasized the potential effectiveness of the peer-to-peer dynamic.
“I love this model because it gets peers talking to peers about the pressures we have,” Polzin said. “I think it’s gonna destigmatize, I think it’s gonna allow for folks to start to think about it differently … even though these are the messages we are seeing and the experience we are having, we can choose to look at it differently and support each other, to think critically about it.”
Although this is technically a research project, LC’s health center directors hope the Peer Body Project will evolve into a robust health outreach program. Hancock expressed optimism about the lasting impact this initiative could have on LC’s Health and Wellness Services.
“The thing that really grabbed me about this project is that it is really an outreach and support program for students,” he said. “There is in this first year a research component to it, and as part of the trade-off for agreeing to be a research site for them, they’re providing all the training to us for free.”
If the project goes well next year, the Office of Health Promotion and Wellness office hopes it can become a permanent part of LC. Hancock believes the project will promote holistic well being among students.
“To feel bad about one’s body is a sad state of affairs; it leads to less enjoyment of life, and it leads to anxiety in relationships, and all sorts of negative emotions,” Hancock said. “So by supporting body image we support mental health.”
The office of Health Promotion and Wellness is accepting peer facilitator applications until the end of the semester, or until all 12 positions have been filled by qualified applicants. You can find the application and more information on the LC website at by scanning the QR code below.