Event initiates discussion on body image, creates memories for U.Va. Family Weekend

The third annual Mother-Daughter Tea at the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center welcomed about 20 guests during last month’s U.Va. Family Weekend. This engaging and powerful event was “the most successful in the past three years” in terms of the amount of interaction and depth of dialogue between interns, staff, mothers and daughters.

Families received information about programs and resources at U.Va. that help students with body image and other concerns. Topics from the event’s discussion included “the thin ideal,” the definition of “fat talk,” ways for women – especially mothers and daughters – to better support each other, and an explanation of the mission of the Body Positive program at the Women’s Center.

After mingling and eating brunch that included seasonal items, like hot apple cider and pumpkin bread, the event officially began with background information and introductions from Amy Chestnutt, the Body Positive / Eating Disorders Education program coordinator.

While explaining the “thin ideal,” Chestnutt noted the lists of traits on the walls that students had previously brainstormed. Characteristics like “no body hair” and “casual B/C cup breast” garnered a few laughs.

But on a more serious note, Chestnut explained, “With the thin-ideal, people go to extreme measures to look this way, including some very unhealthy weight control behaviors and excessive exercise. The goal of the thin-ideal is to attain thinness that is neither realistic nor healthy.”

She emphasized that what society should instead encourage is the “healthy ideal.” Rather than focusing on unreachable standards or an unrealistic image, the “healthy ideal” focuses on “the way your unique body looks when you are doing the necessary things to appropriately maximize your physical health, mental health, and overall quality of life. With the healthy-ideal, the goal is health, fitness, functionality, and longevity.”

Before going further into this topic, each participant in the room described one aspect she loved about her mother or daughter. With this icebreaker, there were testimonies of admiration and respect for one another, ending with a few tears of pride and joy. One mother-daughter pair said this event was the one they were most looking forward to attending on the U.Va. Family Weekend schedule.

Body Positive Halloween CostumesBody Positive intern Tricia O’Donnell began the next section of the discussion with a reminder that “Parents are the No. 1 source of information about weight/shape for their children.”

O’Donnell then debunked myths relating to body image issues that commonly appear in the first year of college such as the “Freshman 15.”

“Where did it come from? A peer reviewed journal article?” O’Donnell asks the audience. “No, it was first in print in 17 magazine in 1989. Someone’s opinion has evolved into ‘fact’ and is now a primary college worry.”

In fact, O’Donnell cited that research shows some freshmen gain an average of 2.5 pounds, but many lose or stay at the same weight. At this age, it is healthy for college students to continue growing.

Mothers and daughters then brainstormed with each other the ways to make the U.Va. community more body positive and later reported out their ideas to the larger group. When the large group reconvened, questions arose about how to approach certain dilemmas.

A few mentioned the struggle they have had with finding the right words to acknowledge when a friend has lost weight. Another issue arose of difficulty in not focusing compliments on a child’s body especially in relation to athletics.

What both of these scenarios had in common was the theme of recognizing action and emotion, rather than image. For example, rephrase a compliment regarding healthy weight loss with “Wow, you seem healthy and happy” instead of “Wow, you look so skinny!”

The following section of the discussion addressed the concept of “fat talk” and how to avoid it. Body Positive intern Samantha Karp defined “fat talk” as “a habit of talking about weight, body image, and exercise – for example — Do I look fat in this? — She’s gained a lot of weight since I saw her last. — You look great! Have you lost weight? Yes, fat talk can seem positive. It communicates our cultural norms, but still really hurts.”

Mother-Daughter Brunch 2014.jpgAs an interactive pair share, mothers and daughters then brainstormed and drew pictures of “Body Positive Halloween Costumes.” Karp gave an example of how she and the other Body Positive interns were going to dress up as a pumpkin, apple and pear to show the different body types – and as a tribute to the Body Positive program logo that a former intern designed.

The group reported out their ideas which included warm, functional and comfortable costumes – not typical costumes that objectify women’s bodies. Another fun suggestion was to dress up as strong women you admire.

Body Positive intern Katelyn Hebel then listed ways to end “fat talk,” which she says her friends now avoid when around her because they are so used to her practicing these methods.

One key method was to “make a pledge to end complaints about your body. And when you catch yourself doing this, make a correction by saying something positive about that body part.”

The final pair share and larger group discussion was on self-care strategies. Some ideas were one-on-one time with a friend, group get-togethers, walking around Grounds, listening to music, practicing yoga and letter writing.

At the conclusion of the discussion, Chestnutt mentioned opportunities to take home some mementos of the day, such as swag with the Body Positive logo, along with pictures in the photo booth she and the interns created in honor of Halloween. Fun props such as wacky hats and wigs were available.

Story by Agnes Filipowski
Photos by Amy Chestnutt