Many students said that discussion surrounding mental health issues is increasingly present on campus, but an open discourse surrounding body image is not.
Many students said that discussion surrounding mental health issues is increasingly present on campus, but an open discourse surrounding body image is not. By Annie E. Schugart

Body Talk

While discussions about mental health often occur at Harvard today, many students say issues around body image and eating disorders remain in the shadows. Those affected suffer, for the most part, quietly and unsure of whom to turn to for help.
By Lena K. Felton

When Esteban M. Guijarro arrived at Harvard in 2011, he might’ve appeared to you like this: thin, of average height, with a short mess of curly black hair and a dimple in his left cheek. Maybe you would’ve guessed that his metabolism went too fast or that he was still growing. Sometimes, he’d look pale to the point of yellow. Mostly, though, he would’ve struck you as a typical bright-eyed Harvard freshman.

The truth was that Guijarro had a problem. He had been struggling with an eating disorder since 2008, when he failed the mile test at his all-boys high school (the time limit had been nine minutes and 40 seconds). In Guijarro’s mind, it was the first time he became conscious of his body.

By freshman year of college, Guijarro was 60 pounds lighter than he’d been in ninth grade, but virtually nobody commented on his weight. He did fine in school, interacted with friends, and went to parties on the weekends. Meanwhile, his problem quietly worsened.

You might’ve known that he ran 10 miles almost every day (to Boston University or North Station and back), but he wouldn’t have told you that he usually skipped lunch and took small dinners from Annenberg to go. You wouldn’t know that he started to use drinking on the weekends as “an excuse for purging,” he tells me, four years later.

His priority at Harvard, he says, wasn’t to be a student. “It was like, ‘OK, how can I run this 10 miles a day? How can I avoid certain foods or certain meals at Annenberg?’”

At the end of his first semester, his eating disorder and other mental health issues came to a head, and Guijarro “hit rock bottom.” He admitted he had a serious problem, left school, and immediately applied to treatment centers to address his anorexia. After a year and a half away—two months of which were spent in an inpatient treatment center—he returned to Harvard, fully recovered.

***

We don’t hear a lot of stories like Guijarro’s at Harvard. In fact, we’re not used to hearing narratives about eating disorders, about fat shaming, about binging and purging, much at all. In recent years, however, there’s been a movement to de-stigmatize the issue of mental health on campus. In February 2013, students rallied for mental health reform outside of Massachusetts Hall; in September 2014, the Freshman Dean’s Office opened a 24-hour Serenity Room in the basement of Grays Hall to help mitigate students’ stress levels; today, students post daily to the Facebook page “How Was Your Day Harvard?”, a social media campaign started this past September to promote mental health awareness on campus and online.

But discourse around body image issues is still, for the most part, quiet.

The peer-counseling group ECHO sold "Love Your Body" bro tanks on "Love Your Body" day last semester.
The peer-counseling group ECHO sold "Love Your Body" bro tanks on "Love Your Body" day last semester. By Annie E. Schugart

Harvard students live and eat together in an ultra-residential community, but there’s a marked reluctance to talk about disordered eating and body image concerns. Although peer counselors on campus try to increase awareness around these issues, some students do not take advantage of the counseling services Harvard offers and many think that the University could do more to further discussion.

Carl E. Rogers ’16 explains it like this: It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to hear a friend say, “Wow, I’ve felt really down in the past week.” He would be surprised, however, to hear the conversation go like this: “I ate so much last night and made myself throw up because I felt so terrible about myself.”

Numbers can speak louder than words. According to statistics from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 91 percent of women will diet at some point during college; the onset of eating disorders is most likely to come about when patients are between the ages of 16 and 20; about 50 percent of people with binge-eating disorders (which can co-exist with binge-drinking) are male.

So why is body image a topic that, many students say, is stigmatized at Harvard?

Students who have experienced eating concerns or are involved in advocacy networks agree that Harvard is neither a body positive nor negative space. On campus, that means that students aren’t actively trying to change how people relate to their bodies, nor are they explicitly creating a hostile environment around the issue. It’s net neutral, because most of the student body isn’t talking about it.

But for Kathryn M. Klingle ’17, the lack of discussion around body image issues breeds an unintentionally negative climate. “Because Harvard isn’t actively trying to change the stereotypes and change the way we talk about body image,” she says, “it ends up reinforcing ideals” about beauty.

Guijarro, who is currently on leave from the school for issues unrelated to body image, believes that Harvard is a “body ignorant space.” Others say, too, that there are pockets of body positivity and disorder awareness on campus—like the peer counseling group Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach, or ECHO, for which Guijarro was a counselor and Klingle currently is—but the overarching norm is silence and complacency.

Heidi M. Hurst ’15-’16, an ECHO co-director, likes to think of body image as always relevant to students, because we “all have a relationship to our bodies.” As we move through the world, we possess some concept of how we look doing so.

Lexie Kite leads the Q&A session of beautyREDEFINED in Geological Lecture Halls on Oct. 20. The presentation, organized by ECHO, was co-led by sister Lindsay Kite and focused on body image resilience.
Lexie Kite leads the Q&A session of beautyREDEFINED in Geological Lecture Halls on Oct. 20. The presentation, organized by ECHO, was co-led by sister Lindsay Kite and focused on body image resilience. By Katherine L Borrazzo

“Everyone’s thinking about [their bodies], always,” Lindsey M. Hagberg ’17, a varsity softball player, suggests to me earnestly. “Everyone has a full-length mirror in their dorm room.”

The particulars of students’ relationships to their bodies are highly individual, no doubt. But college is a unique time—bodies are changing, constant comparisons are being made, and serious issues can take root for some. What’s more, students’ perceptions of the campus culture regarding body image are mostly unanimous: The issue hangs heavy, but unacknowledged, in the air.

‘That All-Encompassing Myth’

Harvard Yard is buzzing at 12:03 p.m. on a Monday in October. A sea of bodies pours out of the lecture halls and classrooms and traipses over crunchy orange and red leaves. Students are mostly indistinguishable, but appear notably put together: They’re wearing polos and sweaters and knee-high brown boots. Dark-wash jeans and loafers and circle scarves. Hair is washed and combed, appearances clean-cut; it’s not unlike a J.Crew catalogue.

Leaf through any magazine or watch any television show, and you will likely be met with America’s standards for what’s beautiful or attractive. The women will be skinny, toned, delicate; the men will be the epitome of masculinity—muscular and strong. And while Harvard might be a bubble in some senses, many students say their peers resemble these larger societal ideals. Students still hold the “normative, white, and western standards of what beauty is,” W. Powell Eddins ’16 says.

Cass M. Hastie ’18 would say that everyone blends together because of the physical standard we impose on each other. “We pride ourselves on being diverse, on being the best and the brightest, but we’re not accepting of what people look like,” Hastie asserts. She feels that students are often “stigmatized if they don’t look like the typical Harvard student, which is thin, tall, and athletic.”

Karen M. Maldonado ’18 and Cassandra Hastie '18, both ECHO peer counselors, wear "Love Your Body" bro tanks that ECHO sold last semester.
Karen M. Maldonado ’18 and Cassandra Hastie '18, both ECHO peer counselors, wear "Love Your Body" bro tanks that ECHO sold last semester. By Annie E. Schugart

Some students cast aside their inherently diverse backgrounds in order to fit in appearance-wise. For Guijarro, the idea that such racially, socially, and geographically distinct students “end up conforming” to a specific standard is deeply “puzzling.”

“For someone to feel beautiful on campus, it goes back to people feeling like they belong on campus,” says Paige R. Woods ’16, a member of the Association of Black Harvard Women. The standard is probably “someone who’s white,” in addition to someone who’s thin, Woods says. She cites “Gossip Girl” (“maybe not blonde hair and blue-eyed, but someone who fits into that structure”) as a framework in which the general public thinks about the stereotypical student here.

Harvard can also be a place of extremes. Karen M. Maldonado ’18 says that, as Harvard students, we all exhibit some degree of “perfectionism.” We “like to be good at things and do well,” and this can end up manifesting in what we want our bodies to look like and how we treat them.

For Hurst, that’s not necessarily specific to Harvard, but perhaps indicative of elite colleges in general. She wonders if students at Princeton, Yale, or Columbia don’t feel similar pressures. “It’s part of that all-encompassing myth,” she explains. The perfect student can do well in classes, juggle extracurricular activities, find time to work out, and “can look really good, too.”

Rogers says that myth isn’t necessarily far from reality. “We have so much pressure to achieve perfection in all aspects of our lives, and the fact that I have maybe seen one [student] who I could classify as significantly overweight in my four years here definitely speaks to that,” he tells me. These visual markers can lead his peers to feel the pressure to be as “in shape as everybody else,” Rogers adds.

These pressures can be even greater for students whose extracurricular pursuits are inherently physical.

Lia F. Kaynor ’17 dances in the ballet and modern companies on campus and is no stranger to the pressures that her art can bring about. Dance, she says, is a “bubble” in which one is surrounded by “mirrors, eyes, and judgment.” But at Harvard, the companies are, in her experience, “a lot better than other places” in the greater Boston area in terms of the culture around body image.

Hagberg explains that sports bring about changes in athletes’ bodies, especially at the collegiate level. Before coming to college, she’d never incorporated weight training into her workouts; when she began lifting as a part of varsity softball practice her freshman year, she noticed the number on the scale rising. “I was strong,” she says, “but in my head, I was like, ‘Oh no, I’m gaining weight.’”

Nowadays, she hears freshmen saying the same things in the training room. Over the past two years, Hagberg has come to love to see what her body can do. She just wishes “there were more of an acceptance of being strong instead of being thin.” It doesn’t make sense to her that society’s ideals for what’s attractive should seep into athletics, too.

All Eyes on Us

Within the first weeks of arriving on campus—just a couple of months ago, now—Laura L. Doherty ’19 was confronted with the term “The Freshman 15.”

The Freshman 15, she says, is a very real phenomenon—if not visually manifested, then verbally so. “Every week, I hear someone talking about it,” she tells me. “The biggest concern is the Freshman 15.”

Annenberg is the bastion of the Harvard freshman experience: Stained glass windows and “Harry Potter”-esque chandeliers loom above the 1,600 freshmen who are encouraged to dine there for every meal, with unlimited swipes in and unlimited quantities of food at their disposal. Annenberg can pose its own set of social anxieties—who to sit with?—and also the more obvious one: What to eat?

Some of her friends, Doherty says, made a vow at the beginning of the year to “only eat salads at Annenberg, because they don’t want to gain the Freshman 15.”

Doherty played sports in high school and never used to worry about what she ate. She still loves her body, she says, but now that she’s on campus, she can’t help but think about how things might change. “Even I am conscious of, ‘OK, I really shouldn’t eat this because this isn’t good for me and I don’t want to gain the Freshman 15,’” she explains.

Maldonado experienced a similar anxiety her freshman year. When she came to Harvard, her biggest fear wasn’t how hard Expository Writing would be or if she’d get along with her roommate. She says it’s “crazy” to think about now, but a year ago, “the biggest, scariest thing” she could imagine was a change in her body.

Maldonado’s body did change, she says, as do many other students’. College often represents the first moment in which students have total reign over their lifestyle habits. They lose the routines they had in high school; maybe they stop playing a sport, snack later into the night, or no longer have a parent reminding them to eat a balanced dinner. It’s easy for students to gain or lose weight, because so many unprecedented factors emerge. Plus, Harvard is a place with seemingly limitless food—not only in the dining halls, but also at Brain Break, entryway study breaks, and club meetings.

Annenberg may seem like a unique experience, but Harvard’s dining and residential system doesn’t change much after freshman year. Unlike many universities in the United States, the vast majority of Harvard students will live and eat on campus for all four years. Students eat alongside each other day after day, where they’re all confronted by the same foods.

Most students trickle into breakfast around 9:30 a.m. (if they eat breakfast at all), head to lunch at noon, and eat dinner around six o’clock. Students “can see what everyone else is eating,” Rogers suggests. “If someone is going in either direction—too much or too little—then there’s even more focus on that, or it’s even easier to see.”

The problem goes further than that, though. “It also means that sometimes people feel weird, like, ‘Oh, that person didn’t eat today. Should I feel bad that I did eat? Should I feel guilty that I went to the dining hall and had lunch at one o’clock?’” Klingle says.

A senior thesis project last year labeled foods in the dining halls with "traffic light" labels, signaling nutritional value of each food. Esteban M. Guijarro said the project invited potential to incite “fear and shame" as well as comparison of diets for those with pre-existing eating concerns.
A senior thesis project last year labeled foods in the dining halls with "traffic light" labels, signaling nutritional value of each food. Esteban M. Guijarro said the project invited potential to incite “fear and shame" as well as comparison of diets for those with pre-existing eating concerns. By Annie E. Schugart

Many recall last year’s “traffic light” labels, a senior thesis project that consisted of labeling food in some dining halls with colored dots. The dots signaled the nutritional value of each food—red dots for the unhealthiest, yellow and green for healthier options. For students with existing eating concerns, Guijarro says, it had the potential to incite “fear and shame.” It also invited comparisons in diet. Guijarro remembers sitting with a group of friends who joked about someone else’s plate of food. “They were like, ‘Oh, wow, you got a lot of red dots on your plate,’” he says.

Indeed, it’s inevitable for students to compare themselves to others in college. Holly Gooding, assistant professor of pediatrics and medicine at Harvard Medical School, explains it in terms of coming-of-age: “[A college student] is trying to become their own person, and they’ll often look to peers to try to figure out who they are,” she explains. “In a college environment, that is often heightened by a residential living environment where everybody sees what everybody else is doing.”

Fat Talk

It was a Friday night, and Doherty and her friends were getting ready to go out. One of the girls, who Doherty says fits into society’s standards for “what’s skinny and beautiful,” stood in front of a mirror. She whined, “Oh, my God, I look so fat in this shirt,” to the others. Doherty looked to another friend, who “made this face and then looked down. You could tell that it made her uncomfortable.”

Conversations about appearance are ubiquitous in daily conversation, and they often follow a specific form: Students talk about their own bodies negatively and give others superficial compliments. It breeds a “weird dichotomy,” Hagberg says; it’s a way of talking around the issue and also implicitly making comparisons to others. She explains it like this: If she and a friend were eating cake, she could say, “Oh, I shouldn’t be eating this, but you’re totally fine [to eat it].

Most students don’t give these comments a second thought. I’m so fat today. I have to lift today. I can’t go out looking like this. I wish I were as fit as you are.

Bryn Austin, a professor at the School of Public Health, says there are real implications for this kind of “fat talk,” as she terms it. Even though it’s directed towards yourself, people are “sending a message that the fat on their body matters more than anything else,” she says.

It can also cause students to reflect more on their own bodies. “When I hear someone fat-shaming themselves, it makes me more self-conscious about what I’m doing or eating or wearing,” Hagberg says.

Hagberg wishes these conversations revolved around what we can do with our bodies, not how they appear. “I would just love not to hear ‘Oh, you look so thin today’ ever again,” she says. The superficiality of that statement can cause people to focus even more on attaining or living up to that ideal.

“You hear the phrase ‘You are goals’ all the time,” Doherty says. “Like, when someone’s either eating healthy or exercising a lot, it’s like, ‘Oh, girl, you are goals.’”

In addition to physical appearance, conversations at Harvard often revolve around “being healthy,” occasionally to the point of worrisome excess. According to Hastie, students praise each other for working out and eating a “healthy” carb-free meal of salad and chicken for dinner.

The medical community has just recently started recognizing “orthorexia,” or an obsession with being healthy, as a serious body image concern. “It’s this idea that you’re taking something about your relationship with food and with your body to an extreme,” says Hurst, who believes it’s an issue at Harvard.

Not Just a ‘Girl’s Issue’

As a freshman, Rogers, who’s now a senior, discovered how much he liked eating. There was an abundance of food, and he realized that he possessed, for the first time in his life, total control over how much or how little he ate. He took advantage of the former and overate “a ton.”

This caused Rogers to feel guilty, so he would “take measures to make sure [he] felt better.” Those measures involved making himself throw up, especially after going out on a Saturday night. It happened every couple of weeks, maybe more, he says, depending on how much he’d eaten earlier that day.

Concerns around body image aren’t “just a girls’ issue,” Hastie says.
Concerns around body image aren’t “just a girls’ issue,” Hastie says. By Annie E. Schugart

Concerns around body image aren’t “just a girls’ issue,” Hastie says. At Harvard, and in society as a whole, men struggle with their bodies just as much as women do—but it’s not necessarily something that they always feel comfortable verbalizing.

The crux of the issue lies in an emphasis on traditional masculinity, says Olivardia, who has spent his career studying body image issues in men. It is the driving factor for what’s physically acceptable for men, and it also imposes restrictions on what men should or shouldn’t say about their bodies.

Rogers suggests that there’s a marked difference between how straight and gay men approach the issue. As a gay man, he can talk more openly about his perception of his own body, he says. He worries less about living up to some ideal of masculinity, “because I’m already not a ‘real man’ by society’s standards,” he says.

Eddins, who now identifies as genderqueer and prefers female pronouns, struggled with her masculinity and body up until recently. Earlier on in Eddins’s college career, she “worked out like crazy” and drank protein shakes but had a hard time putting on muscle. “I’ve had a very hard time dealing with this,” Eddins tells me. “It’s not something that I can hide.”

Despite their muscular physiques, many male athletes have a fraught relationship with body image as well. In 2014, The Crimson published an article that explored the relationship between athletes and their bodies, particularly those whose sports imposed weight restrictions, like rowing and wrestling. Many of the male athletes interviewed for the article expressed a discomfort with how their bodies appeared; a football player voiced how his teammates “‘stick out like a sore thumb’” on campus. They discussed feeling pressure to cut weight, and occasionally, to bulk on fat and muscle to the point of uncomfortable excess.

At a certain point, habits around eating and exercise can verge on obsessive, regardless of whether they’re involved in athletics or not. Binge eating has a higher incidence in males than any other eating disorder, partly because it is easier to hide, Olivardia explains. Nationally, about half of the people struggling with binge eating disorders are male; Olivardia says this number might even be higher for college-aged students. Many of Rogers’s and Guijarro’s concerns around body image, for example, were manifested in binging and purging behavior.

What’s more, men’s disorders go undiagnosed more often than do women’s. Guijarro says that silence and lack of awareness by his peers around his eating disorder prolonged the time he waited before seeking intervention.

“What I find most upsetting is that if I were a female, truthfully, I don’t think I would have gotten away with [anorexia] for as long as I did,” he tells me. “If I were a girl, frankly, and I had lost 70 pounds…and looked like a stick with jaundice, people probably would’ve said something a lot sooner.”

Asking for Help

When Rogers’s habit of binging and purging began to feel compulsive, he stepped back and realized his relationship with food had spiraled out of his control. “I eventually started seeing a counselor at the [Bureau of Study Counsel] which was great, because I didn’t really want to talk to friends about this,” he says.

In cases like Rogers’s, it was only when his disorder began to dictate certain aspects of his life that he admitted that something needed to change. In general, this is how the medical community considers whether someone is at risk to develop a diagnosable disorder, Olivardia says.

But there are gray areas. “On campus, there’s a lack of education around what eating concerns and body image issues and concerns with exercise look like,” Hurst says. “There’s not a discussion of what’s too much.”

Maldonado says that when her concerns with her body started taking up a lot of “brain space,” she talked it over with the proctors in her freshman entryway. They provided a supportive ear and helped put into perspective the idea that bodies do change in college.

Karen M. Maldonado '18 and Cassandra Hastie '18 are both peer counselors with ECHO. “We pride ourselves on being diverse, on being the best and the brightest, but we’re not accepting of what people look like,” Hastie said of campus culture at Harvard.
Karen M. Maldonado '18 and Cassandra Hastie '18 are both peer counselors with ECHO. “We pride ourselves on being diverse, on being the best and the brightest, but we’re not accepting of what people look like,” Hastie said of campus culture at Harvard. By Annie E. Schugart

But neither the BSC nor proctors are necessarily prepared to address students’ body image issues; the BSC’s mission is more general—“to support students in their learning, growth, and development” and not to serve as an official service for eating and body image disorders—and proctors don’t receive formal training on how to counsel someone with body image concerns, says Cori Tucker-Price, director of residential education for the Freshman Dean’s Office and a proctor in Wigglesworth.

Tucker-Price explains that proctors are informed about the signs associated with eating concerns (weight loss, excessive exercise, etc.) as well as which resources to point students towards if they do come forward with an issue. But she also has some ideas of her own to help mitigate the anxiety around body image that can arise freshman year. She’s hoping to roll out a program next semester—she thinks that events for freshmen about “healthy eating, body image, and working out” could help combat some of these issues.

Gooding says that, in general, there are “great treatment modalities” in the realm of counseling around body image issues at Harvard. Students with eating concerns are generally pointed towards Harvard University Health Services’ Counseling and Mental Health division, which houses a team of clinicians who specialize in eating disorders and body image issues.

Conversations between clinicians and students provide “support and education” for how students can change their “thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in order to improve their quality of life,” Jenna Stark, a licensed clinical social worker at Counseling and Mental Health, wrote in an email. Treatment varies from student to student; depending on their specific needs, they may also be referred to Nutrition, Internal Medicine, or other UHS departments as well.

Michelle Gallant, a dietician at UHS Nutrition, explains that body image concerns “often arise in nutrition sessions,” so nutritionists take “an individualized approach to both eating disorder recovery and weight concerns.” Nutritionists utilize “the health at every size approach,” which advocates for healthy behaviors rather than focusing on numbers on the scale, Gallant wrote in an email.

Despite these resources being available to them, most students interviewed did not seek help from UHS for their eating concerns.

‘You Deserve Support’

Hastie meets me under the white lights inside Clover Food Lab on Holyoke Street. Outside, the sky is turning navy and the air, chilly. Hastie’s cheeks are flushed pink after rushing through the cold from class, but she’s excited to talk as soon as she sits down. She is, by now, used to telling others about her former eating disorder.

Hastie struggled with anorexia for two years of high school. On a typical day, she would wake up hungry and weigh herself. She’d stand in front of a mirror and spend the next 10 minutes grabbing at areas of her body she was uncomfortable with—generally, she’d pinch the skin around her stomach or face. She’d do 100 sit-ups. At the worst of it, she would skip breakfast and go to school, where she’d eat a snack bar and apple for lunch. She’d be irritable because she wasn’t eating; she lost a good number of friends during this time. Maybe she’d eat a veggie burger with no bun for dinner. Her parents were worried. She’d work out. At the end of the day, she’d crawl into bed and be unable to sleep because she was starving. Her hair started falling out; her nails looked blue. It would all repeat the next morning.

“A typical day was pretty scary,” she tells me, wide-eyed. “I was very alone.”

Thankfully, Hastie says, her family was there to support her and find help. She worked with a doctor, a therapist, a psychiatrist, and a nutritionist who put her on a regimented meal plan. She relapsed once, about three months after her initial recovery, but a summer program at Brown motivated her to move past the disorder.

At Harvard, she very rarely has a “bad day” in terms of her relationship with her body. But without her parents’ backing and the resources she had before coming to college, she doesn’t know where she would be today. “I had that foundation before I came to college,” she says. “But a lot of people who come to college don’t have that same support system when they’re on their own.”

Within the first weeks of coming to campus, Hastie told her Peer Advising Fellow that she was interested in helping students with stories like hers. That’s how she became a peer counselor for Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach.

ECHO was founded in the late ’70s as the second peer-counseling group on campus, after Room 13. It’s always had the same focus on eating concerns, eating disorders, body image, and exercise. Counselors’ work falls into two categories: They staff a hotline, open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. seven days a week, as well as an office, which is open 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. every Sunday through Wednesday. They run events, workshops, and poster the campus weekly. No concern is too big or small for someone to seek out ECHO, says Rivka B. Hyland ’16, one of the group’s co-directors.

Staffers (there are currently 13) undergo 40 hours of training each semester, which consists of general peer counseling lessons (“what it means to listen to someone, what it means to validate for any kind of concern,” Hyland explains) and also special instruction regarding eating disorders, treatment, exercise, and nutrition.

ECHO counselors recognize that this is a sensitive subject, so they approach it in a number of ways. The group’s Instagram account, run by Hastie and Alana M. Steinberg ’18, a Crimson multimedia editor, positions itself in opposition to “thinspo” and “fitspo” accounts (which extol the virtues of restricted eating and excessive exercise). It posts body positive messages and quotes, such as “Less inner thigh doesn’t necessarily equate to more inner peace,” twice a day. “It’s about saying, ‘It’s OK to not be fine, and people are here for you. You’re not alone in this,’” Hastie says. “I think social media is very powerful in that sense.”

A recent Tuesday—Oct. 20—was a blisteringly cold fall night, the kind that reminds you that winter is really coming. Regardless of the chill, about 30 female students made the trek to the Geological Museum to take part in the ECHO-sponsored event “Beauty Redefined.” The presentation, led by Lindsay and Lexie Kite, twins with Ph.D.s in the study of media and body image, has traveled all over the country.

While the room wasn’t quite filled to capacity, audience members were passionate about the topic—several asked questions, ranging from how to talk to their friends about the issue to the recent rise in plastic surgeries. By the end of the presentation, most of the cookies, strawberries, and ECHO stickers at the front of the room were gone, too.

ECHO sponsors other types of events as well. Several weeks before “Beauty Redefined,” ECHO held an “intuitive eating” discussion in the small dining room of Lowell House, where Gallant spoke to a small group of students, male and female, about how to “eat mindfully” and listen to what their bodies need and want. Similar workshops are scheduled for the future.

Some students, though, wonder if ECHO is under-utilized. “I think that the fact that ECHO exists and has signs everywhere is great, but from what I understand, it’s not used a whole lot,” Rogers says. “Again, no one wants to show weakness.”

The audience at the beautyREDEFINED presentation listened to Lindsay and Lexie Kite discuss body image resilience, self-objectification, and body shame, among other topics during an Oct. 20 event held in Geological Lecture Halls.
The audience at the beautyREDEFINED presentation listened to Lindsay and Lexie Kite discuss body image resilience, self-objectification, and body shame, among other topics during an Oct. 20 event held in Geological Lecture Halls. By Katherine L Borrazzo

Despite the amount of work they contribute, even some counselors feel that students don’t take advantage of the resource. Hastie says that she’s “so glad that ECHO exists and that we have mental health services,” but she doesn’t think that students “are taught that it’s normal and OK to seek services.”

Many ECHO counselors express that they want the group to play a bigger role on campus. They’ve been trying to lead a program during freshman orientation for some time now, Hurst tells me.

When I talk to Doherty, a freshman who has recently gone through orientation, she notes the lack of a body image-specific program during Opening Days. While the school addressed mental health in terms of depression and anxiety, as well as sexual harassment, assault, and the abuse of drugs and alcohol, “nobody came up to us and said, ‘By the way, body image is something that you might also think a lot about,’” she says. Dean of Freshman Thomas A. Dingman ’67 confirmed in an email that there is not a specific program centered on body image during orientation.

Due to confidentiality rules, ECHO counselors can’t release any specific information about the amount of calls or visits they get. “But one thing I do want to say,” Hurst tells me, “is that students do struggle with these concerns.” There wouldn’t be an entire peer counseling group dedicated to body image concerns, she says, “if it weren’t a problem on campus.”

A Celebration of Bodies

Hyland agrees with other students that “the sense of diversity of what it means to be healthy and what it means to be beautiful” can get lost at Harvard. But she has “also experienced it getting found.”

Indeed, pockets of body positive spaces, like ECHO, do thrive on campus. For Woods, her “pro-black” community at Harvard completely dictates her experience with body image. She says that she surrounds herself with people who will support her idea of beauty; groups like the Kuumba Singers and the Association of Black Harvard Women have been “home” to her, because she’s comfortable in her skin there. “You’re getting people who are like, ‘You’re a tall, thick woman, I’m a tall, thick woman. Here is this blazer, here is this dress that will look great on you,’” she says.

When Lydia E. Burns ’16 joined the women’s rugby team her freshman year, her already healthy relationship to her body only improved. Being part of the team “has given me a lot of confidence in how I use my body,” she says. “In the way that I love looking in the mirror and seeing muscle and knowing that translates to something larger than myself.” The team, she says, is a unique space in terms of “female strength and positive body image.”

Burns was one of the photographers involved in “Rugged Grace,” a series of photographs borne out of an article that one of the players, Brooke H. Kantor ’15, was writing for the Harvard Political Review. The photographs, which now survive on a Tumblr page, capture members of the team in sports bras and spandex with encouraging words and phrases written in Sharpie across their thighs, stomachs, and arms (“squat master,” “so strong,” “fighter!”). The project garnered national media attention: It was featured on “Good Morning America” and in Glamour Magazine.

The project at first seemed like “kind of an awkward thing to ask of people,” Burns says, but once the women got to their makeshift set, “there was this weird sense of togetherness and almost therapy.” Burns describes the scene with a wide smile. Teammates jumped in and out of the camera’s frame; they wrote feverishly on each other’s bodies and yelled out compliments, celebrating one another’s and their own strengths; there was lots of laughter. It was, Burns remembers, “a time-warp sort of space, where we were just in this zone together.”

Having the Conversation

How, then, can the positivity of that kind of “time-warp sort of space” inform conversations around body image and disordered eating at Harvard? How can the “stigma,” that so many students speak of, be erased?

When I ask students what can be done to change Harvard’s culture of body image issues, I’m met with silence, sharp intakes of breath, or, “Let me think about this.” Because body image issues are so pervasive in society, students say, it’s not easy to think of any readily tangible solutions for Harvard’s campus.

A few moments after the silence or breathing or thinking, most students land on the same solution: The only way to de-stigmatize the topic is to talk about it. Body image concerns start, and end, with language. A lot of the issue, Guijarro says, “is a question of the silence that perpetuates the shame and the isolation and the embarrassment.”

"Love Your Body" tanks were sold last semester by peer-counseling group ECHO. ECHO, which stands for Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach, was founded in the late ’70s as the second peer-counseling group on campus.
"Love Your Body" tanks were sold last semester by peer-counseling group ECHO. ECHO, which stands for Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach, was founded in the late ’70s as the second peer-counseling group on campus. By Annie E. Schugart

When Hastie was struggling with her eating disorder, she wished there were different modes of talking about eating concerns and greater sensitivity to the topic. “I feel like everyone could be doing more to talk about it and not just treat us like we’re ‘damaged goods,’” she says.

Harvard—and other universities, Austin says—also needs to change the manner in which bodies are discussed. “There’s more that could be done to address weight stigma head on, to address fat talk, to create supportive environments where body shame is not the norm in conversation,” she says.

Woods would love to see a space on campus that brings people from various social and cultural groups into conversation with one another to celebrate diversity of appearance. That way, students can ask each other what they love about themselves, what’s important to them, and what challenges they face.

It’s a beautiful fall day when Kaynor, the dancer, and I meet. The leaves are burnt orange and shaking a little in the wind—that mythical Indian summer. Gold flecks sparkle on Kaynor’s eyelids and neck. She participated in a yoga and dance event in Central Square that morning, where body glitter was abundant.

We’re sitting in the Yard, and even though November is just a couple of days away, there’s no need for a jacket. When I ask Kaynor how students can create a more body positive campus, she’s quick and confident to answer; the glitter is dancing on her face. “Every person you talk to can identify in some way with these issues, which is why it can be so hard to figure out how to tackle,” she tells me. “But it can also be really empowering to realize you’re not alone.”

Kaynor is enthusiastic about the important change that will arise if we “have a conversation, but really have a conversation” about body image. Her emphasis via repetition is telling—we have to fight the urge to fill these conversations with superficial language, she says. “Real, deep discussions” are key to making any kind of difference.

And maybe the issue won’t hang so heavy in the air—it doesn’t seem to now, in the golden afternoon sun—if we just jump in.

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