By Erika ’12, Madeline ’12
On your way to your first period class, you see yet another bake sale. You are immediately sidetracked and suddenly find yourself salivating as you eyeball a perfect red velvet cupcake topped with, your favorite, cream cheese frosting. Your hands unconsciously reach for your wallet to pull out a dollar when you stop and think, “Do I really want this? It is almost bathing suit season, so maybe I shouldn’t.” But why should society control your diet, you wonder. You pick up the cupcake, vowing to skip lunch later to compensate.
At Marlborough, it’s almost impossible to resist the sweet temptations of constant treats, especially if you have three tests that day. Most students enjoy indulging in unhealthy foods every once in a while, but not everyone does so without feeling some element of guilt. Though the majority of girls fall into the healthy middle ground between the extreme cases of anorexia and obesity, not all “healthy” girls embrace their shape.
On Wednesday Mar. 16, the Class of 2014 went on a retreat to Grace E. Simons Lodge in Elysian Park. The retreat, run by The Body Positive, focused on promoting self-confidence at any size or weight. Some students felt that the retreat raised important issues of body image, while others suddenly found themselves uncomfortable as they focused on their flaws.
Regardless of the extent to which young people take today’s skewed ideal of a “perfect” body to heart, the issue of body image has a profound effect on the way they see themselves and their peers. Though the retreat only scratched the surface of what may cause students to feel insecure about their bodies, the pressure to be skinny is greater than ever before. Most students fall into the healthy middle ground yet fret about their size, so how can girls learn to respect their bodies before they hurt themselves?
Retreat to move forward
Over the summer, School Counselor Emily Vaughn attended a training by The Body Positive, a non-profit organization founded in 1996 that works directly with schools and communities to help men and women of all ages love their bodies.
Soon afterwards, the organization’s leaders came to the School and met with Vaughn and 9th Grade Level Dean Helen Mendoza. After speaking with Morgan Lewis ’07, who works with The Body Positive at UC Berkeley, Vaughn and Mendoza decided to bring The Body Positive to Marlborough. The retreat was made possible by a grant donated to the 9th Grade class fund to provide activities and discussions encouraging freshman girls to reflect on the role body image plays in their lives. Vaughn said she hopes the retreat inspired ninth graders to maintain healthy lifestyles while remaining confident in their appearances.
“We’re all different and unique, and yet we don’t celebrate that,” Vaughn said.
Because this was The Body Positive’s first year collaborating with Marlborough, some ninth graders said they felt that certain aspects of the program could be improved upon to better introduce the theme of body image next year.
Sonia ’14 said she appreciated the chance to address this pressing teen issue but was uncomfortable with how some of the activities and discussions were executed, as they did not leave a lasting impression on her.
“I think this is an issue that people need to be aware of,” Sonia said. “I just don’t know if this is the right program.”
At the retreat, ninth graders wrote and shared feelings about personal experiences with body image, watched The Body Positive’s documentary and made lists of their insecurities and of qualities they’re proud to have.
Christina ’14 said she felt that having smaller, more personal discussion groups at the retreat would have made sharing her thoughts and feelings easier.
“You can break down walls, but you have to do so gradually,” Christina said.
Gina ’14 said that the Body Positive retreat could have focused more on how healthy choices and self-confidence can coexist.
“I think they could have touched more on nutrition and how to be healthy, because they mentioned it but they didn’t really elaborate on it,” Gina said. “That way they could show how you cannot worry about your weight while making sure you eat healthily.”
Mendoza said she hopes that the retreat will inspire students not only to make the retreat an annual event for the freshmen girls but also to remember the energy and message of the retreat throughout Upper School.
Love for food will endure
Today’s strict standards of beauty can provoke insecurities that concern far more students than just the Class of 2014. At Marlborough, body image may not be thought of as one of students’ main sources of anxiety and stress, but the constant preoccupation with schoolwork sometimes makes it easier for students to avoid taking care of their physical well-being.
“[Body image] is definitely a huge concern at Marlborough. I don’t think it’s something that’s really discussed at all,” Dana ’12 said.
Often times, girls put their studies and homework above their food needs, resulting in abnormal eating patterns. Hectic schedules not only distort student perceptions of “correct” eating times but also have them using lunch periods to work rather than eat.
“Marlborough definitely gives me irregular eating habits because I know I’m going to work through lunch, so I eat a bigger breakfast,” Lauren ’12 said.
According to Vaughn, not listening to your body’s basic need for food can affect the way you interact with food, creating a negative relationship with what you eat.
“It’s one thing to be kind to other people, but we can be pretty harsh on ourselves,” Vaughn said.
Neglecting nutritious, balanced eating can not only take a toll on a student’s physical health but can also be destructive to self-confidence when fueled by the pressure to achieve society’s unrealistic body ideals.
Similar concerns were brought up in the 2010 parent and student survey results. Parents said they felt that there were too many unhealthy food options around campus. In response, Auxiliary Services Manager Clinton Oie created a food services advisory committee of parents, students and faculty to oversee the healthy balance in the food offered at Café M.
Still, sugary junk food seems to have a constant presence at Marlborough.
“I feel sick because there are always sweets in the morning,” Lauren said.
Some students compensate for the unhealthy options by skipping lunch. Bre ’11 said that she has heard classmates discuss their unreasonable prom diets and their incentive to be skinnier -—images of models and celebrities, which they call their “thinspiration.” According to Martin, prom diets can range from overexercising to drastically reducing daily caloric intake.
“It’s just kind of sad,” she said.
Can looks kill?
The atmosphere at school may contribute to how we interact with food and how we treat our bodies, but living in Los Angeles, where one runs into celebrities at the grocery store, also plays a huge part.
Some students said they’ve noticed their peers often feel as though they cannot be happy unless they are extremely skinny, with models and actresses as “thinspiration.” Celebrities like Jennifer Hudson, who were once known to be curvy and healthy, have shed numerous pounds to fit the Hollywood mold.
“It’s not just Marlborough students who have this mindset—it’s everyone,” Mendoza said.
Girls might not always notice their prominence in everyday life, but images in the media often glorify the importance of looks and portray skinny as the norm. Television shows popular among teenage girls, such as Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl, depict the fabulous, scandalous lifestyles of beautiful young women — all of whom happen to be thin.
“Just seeing shows like that… gives a different perception of what normal looks like,” Sophia ’13 said.
According to Martin, seniors were glued to their computers watching the 2010 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show last fall, comparing themselves to the models they saw on the runway. Today, the average fashion model weighs 23% less than the average American woman, as opposed to 8% 20 years ago, according to the Media Awareness Network.
Physical Education instructor Tinka Brown agrees that women obsess too much over their weight and said that doing so can lower self-esteem.
“Who came up with a size zero?” she said.
For teenage girls, comparing their bodies to the images they see daily on screens or in magazines seems almost an inevitable response. According to Mendoza, what looks skinny or fashionable can blend into what looks healthy and be portrayed by the media as one and the same.
“If that aspect of culture doesn’t allow for people to be comfortable with themselves, then I don’t think it’s so great,” Mendoza said.
This self-criticism becomes damaging when natural and healthy body shapes begin to seem inferior to society’s standard of beauty. According to a study conducted by Psychology Today in 1997, 56% of women surveyed were dissatisfied with their bodies. These numbers spike in teenage girls, indicating harmful insecurities.
“I think this is disturbing, especially because in American culture we embrace all types of people, and now young girls have unrealistic expectations thrown at them through the media, Jade ’13 said.
Marlborough’s competitive environment, the media, the influence of Hollywood culture and the pressures of being a teenage girl make it to easy to give into the demand to be thin, even if this goal is reached by unhealthy means. Vaughn suggested that changing views on body image begins with personal improvement.
“We have to love ourselves,” she said. “It all begins from that.”