Every year events like the Catwalk to End Fat Talk and the SHAPE Art Show are held across campus to promote positive body image and remind students that they are beautiful no matter what they think. But who are the people behind these events?
Students Helping to Achieve Positive Esteem (SHAPE) is a UConn department through Student Health Services, made up of about 15 undergraduate girls, their intern Shayna DeLuca, their registered dietician in Student Health Services and graduate assistant Alexis Ludwig. And when they’re all together, it’s clear how passionate they are about supporting each other and other girls on campus.
“I saw that it was a really great community of girls who all are very body positive and have a strong sense of confidence in themselves and want the same for all the other girls on campus,” Hannah Lavoie, a third-semester psychology and human development family studies major and second-semester member of SHAPE, said.
During their weekly Tuesday meetings, one member a week gives a presentation regarding body image. Recently, most of their meetings have been about the negative influence of the media and social media on body image.
“Looking at social media currently, there’s a lot of perfect facades of what life should look like,” Ludwig said. “And I think when individuals see that, on Instagram or whatever it may be, and compare themselves to that image, I think that’s when a lot of the disruption can happen. Unfortunately, I think there’s an uptick on college campuses due to the peer influence, again, and that (of) social media.”
During their Nov. 27 meeting, SHAPE discussed the need for plus-sized models and how companies like Victoria’s Secret refuse to use them. Not only would plus-sized models be incredibly empowering to the majority of women in America, but the dangerous diets and slim figure of the traditionally skinny models can trigger eating disorders in viewers. By only using women of unattainable proportions, companies perpetuate the “thin ideal.” This ideal is the list people automatically make in their head when asked what their ideal pretty woman would be.
Since SHAPE is a peer education group, one of its main jobs is to train its members to administer The Body Project. This project exists to bring awareness to the “thin ideal” and ultimately destroy its influence, especially on young women. It does this by teaching participants to identify the “thin ideal” and its problems and set personal goals.
Priya Sathyalingam, a fifth-semester molecular and cell biology major and fifth-semester member of SHAPE, said that when she was undergoing The Body Project for the first time, she made herself wear her hair natural for a few days.
“So to me, what stood out about the body project was the challenges,” Sathyalingam said. “There were different challenges like ‘do something that is a little outside your comfort zone.’ So one of the things that I did was wear my hair natural for a few days, and my hair is big and curly and frizzy and so when I was wearing it natural I was like, ‘Oh my God, everyone’s looking at me.’ But little things like that, that’s what the body project does. You meet up two seperate times, so that you can kind of analyze the differences at the second meeting.”
These sessions are offered to any club, sorority, fraternity or RA that wants their group to undergo the project. Sathyalingam first administered the project to a floor of girls living on campus.
“I think they all were just feeling the stress of college and this is such a good way to kind of get away and talk about things that we all go through but don’t really talk about,” Sathyalingam said. “Social media can suck sometimes, so just talking about it with a group of girls sitting down in a room, at the end of it they were so thankful and I felt so good.”
Sathyalingam said administering The Body Project has made her feel like she’s actually making a difference in people’s lives, and DeLuca said research backs her feeling.
“The Body Project is an evidence-based program that has proven to reduce eating disorders on campus,” DeLuca said.
The Body Project isn’t the only influential endeavor of SHAPE’s, the Catwalk and the Art Show have reached a large volume of students all across UConn.
“Catwalk is definitely the most powerful,” DeLuca said. “I give the models and the students who participate in the catwalk a lot of credit, because a lot of them are like, ‘I’m just doing this for fun.’ And I know myself, I get shy standing in front of a crowd of people. They get up there, they dance, they strut their stuff and look amazing doing it.”
The Catwalk to End Fat Talk takes place in October and is open for any students to attend or act as the models. The Art Show takes place in the spring semester and is done in cooperation with the School of Fine Arts, but other students can participate as well. It usually has a theme, and according to Sathyalingam the last theme was fitness.
“Getting different people to photograph their other friends doing different activities and showing the beauty in that: What our bodies are capable of,” Sathyalingam said.
These events help to present bodies not as something to be judged, but as things of beauty and individuality.
But it isn’t just the big, well-known events that make an impression on students. Lavoie said it is the little things that have made the biggest impact during her time in SHAPE.
“We had a Health and Wellness Fair in September I think or early October, and we were just handing out compliment cards to people,” Lavoie said. “So we had them step on a scale and whatever color they landed on, we gave them a card that coordinated to that and a lot of people took that really well, just because they were expecting to see a number and nobody wants to step on a scale with their full backpack and everything. But to see them get compliments, to see their faces, that was really cool.”
SHAPE is empowering to both its members and the participants of its events, and it is always looking for new members. Applications to join are short and easy to fill out and accessible on https://nutrition.uconn.edu/uconn-s-h-a-p-e/. But even if you don’t want to commit to being a member, attending the events and participating in them can be just as eye opening and inspiring.
“I have really loved being a part of this group and this group has taught me more about myself than anything, and has proven to me that I am capable of a lot more than I thought that I was coming into it,” DeLuca said. “And I think for a lot of people, as they progress through being a member of SHAPE, you talk about topics that are usually uncomfortable for people and you talk about things about yourself that are usually uncomfortable (for you to talk about) with others. And having that safe space to just talk about things that are usually hard really helps you progress and mature as a person.”
Rebecca Maher is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.