Many students say concern over body image is rampant on Penn's campus. Now, Counseling and Psychological Services is launching a new initiative to help.
EmBody You! is a semester-long series of CAPS workshops aimed at promoting body positivity and healthy eating habits, CAPS Director of Outreach and Prevention Services Meeta Kumar said.
The project launched on Feb. 27, the first day of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and is open to both undergraduate and graduate students. It consists of eight workshops led by CAPS psychologists and social workers with experience in body image counseling.
Topics range from emotional eating to masculinity ideals, and each workshop will focus on a specific group, including transgender individuals, postpartum women, international students, women of color, and disabled people.
“The myth is that these issues only affect white, cis women who are of upperclass socioeconomic status, but these are issues that impact a lot of different communities in a lot of different ways,” Kumar said.
“What kind of representation do you see of yourself? What kind of historical trauma has happened? What kind of stereotypes do you encounter?” she added.
Currently, CAPS has a team dedicated to eating disorders, which works closely with clinicians, nutritionists, and case managers at Student Health Services. CAPS offers individual and group therapy for students with body image concerns, including art therapy for students who have an eating disorder diagnosis.
“It’s necessary. There are a lot of people out there who have body image issues for a variety of reasons, but it’s not really talked about a lot,” College freshman Brooke Price said, adding that body image is addressed less often than issues like stress or classism.
Body image overlaps with other mental health issues, such as anxiety, isolation, and lack of a community, Kumar said.
College freshman Trent McHenry said he was surprised at how fit the Penn population was when he first arrived at Penn. He added that "type-A" students at Penn may fall victim to difficult body standards.
“The people who go to this kind of school are more prone to be perfectionists and take their goals very seriously, and when someone takes a goal like losing weight too seriously, it can quickly become dangerous and unhealthy,” said Mariya Bershad, founder of Penn’s chapter of Project HEAL, an international organization that aims to provide resources for people with eating disorders.
Some of the staff members of EmBody You! were inspired to get involved with the initiative after leading the CAPS group Body Love, a monthly discussion space started in spring 2017 centered on body image for students who identify as women of color, Kumar said.
However, last semester Body Love only met twice. This is the first time CAPS has hosted this many body image workshops in one semester.
One of the workshops in March plans to focus on beauty standards for women of color, which Nursing freshman Sydney Steward said can be complicated for black women.
Every time she goes to Pottruck Health and Fitness Center, she said she questions whether her afternoons at the gym are worth it. However, she added that she now feels "comfortable in [her] own skin."
“You see women like Kim Kardashian and you say, 'Okay, this is what the media says is beautiful.’ But if you change the skin tone, it’s not. And that’s something always in the back of black women’s minds,” Steward said. “For black women, it’s definitely a different landscape.”
The CAPS workshops will also address body image among transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals.
“In heteronormative spaces there’s a strong reinforcement of, ‘Men are masculine; women are feminine,'” Price said. "The definitions of masculinity and femininity are so narrow, in dress, mannerisms, and body types."
Kumar says she hopes the workshops will help students who struggle with body image but are too intimidated for an individual CAPS visit.
Bershad agreed, “As with many mental illnesses, if it’s impacting your academics or ability to be social significantly throughout the week, those are signs it is a problem and it’s not just you’re on a diet."
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