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The Body Binary

ndifrank's picture



Recently Bryn Mawr College has begun a health program named “ Fitness Owls”. This program is only available for students with a BMI over 30, which deems them “Obese”. For taking this class students receive credit towards Bryn Mawr’s physical education requirements. Before meeting with the group students must have their vitals checked, introduce themselves to the main physician of the health center to determine any physical limitations and to the head of the counseling center in order to understand any emotional boundaries. When talking to the main physician as well as the head of the counseling center, I was affirmed that Fitness Owls was to better the health of Bryn Mawr students and not to focus on losing weight. When I asked why BMI was used as a requirement if weight was not the central focus, I was told that students with BMI’s under 30 were obviously doing “something right and knew how to handle cravings as well as exercise properly and did not need the education that students with BMIs over 30 need”. The course also includes weekly meetings with the dietician whose worksheets and pamphlets are oriented around losing weight such that each student must weigh in each week and chart their weight. Once a week students must work out with a personal trainer and three times during the 8-week course they are required to meet with a consoler. The program also includes wearing a Fit Bit which monitors sleep and steps as well as burned calories.

Also BMI is a measure of weight compared to height. As described by the CDC “BMI is a fairly reliable indicator of body fatness for most people”. Here is picture chart that compares BMI numbers with assumed body shape:


This essay focuses on female college students, as the Fitness Owl Program of Bryn Mawr College inspired it.


Obesity rates have been on rise nationally. First Lady Michelle Obama has even begun a campaign called “Let’s Move” to help combat childhood obesity. There are many health risks with being overweight that can shorten one’s life. Elementary school students are not the only populations being effected. Sara Lipka states, “About a third of college students nationwide are overweight, and the proportion of obese students has increased, to 11.3 percent in 2009 from 8 percent in 2000”, due to these statistics many college health centers around the U.S. have felt a pressure to educate students on how to be healthy.

The types of programs created to encourage health and aide weight loss range from online courses, extra curricular programs, and classes where credit is given. A majority of these programs utilize BMI standards in order to decide which students are allowed to be a part of their program or course. This prerequisite is troubling due to assumptions made by using BMI standards such as the fact BMI relies solely on weight therefore deeming students with lower weights as healthy and therefore in no need to take a course on nutrition or exercise and that students who are considered “normal” or “underweight” do not suffer from body image issues. This assumption also reinforces a binary that deems fat as unhealthy and skinny as healthy. College health centers should not limit their outreach to only students with high BMIs but also students who want and feel they need help with nutrition and exercise in order to promote general health as well as preventative care.

Obesity on college campuses should not be considered a problem to be solved by only health centers but a flaw in our institutions that force students to feel  their health is second rate to their academics.  Increased stress and decreased or erratic sleep has been proven to correlate with weight gain (Gardner). College students have been found to experience high levels of stress in their academic environment causing them to decline in mental health and overeat leading to obesity (Gardner). Students are expected to not only take rigorous courses, but also to focus solely on their courses. In 2008 the National College Health Assessment data found that stress is the number 1 reported impediment to student’s academic performance (Harring). Stress causes a higher consumption of foods with more fat and sugar leading to weight gain (Harring). A relationship between eating disturbance, body image and academic achievement was examined and it was determined that “higher levels of eating disturbances and body dissatisfaction were associated with higher levels of interference in academic achievement” (Harring). Institutions must encourage all students that their health is more vital than their academic standing in order to prevent or lessen obesity on campus. Once in college, students’ physical activity drops dramatically furthering the notion that many students do not arrive on campus obese but gain weight through their college career due to the environment the institution encourages (Dennis). Obesity on college campuses is not only caused by lack of nutritional knowledge but also by the environment that rigorous colleges breed.

The majority of female college students suffer from body image issues including false perceptions of their weight causing them to manage their weight in unhealthy ways yet, due to lower BMI many of these students are not given the opportunity to learn how to exercise and eat properly. In study which included both male and female college students 83% of females suffered from inflated body weight perception compared to 16.9% of males ( Harring). This inflation may be caused to societal norms that women are exposed to through the media. Without intervention from colleges these female students may continue to  pursue unhealthy weight management seeing that women are the most likely to attain eating disorders in their colleges years.

The encouragement for women to exercise constantly in order to lose weight can encourage disordered weight management habits that are ignored due to the fact the student maybe losing or maintaining an ideal weight. It has been found that, “exercise behavior is associated with increased depression and anxiety among women with eating disorder symptoms” (Harring). Programs that encourage health yet, also have focuses or goals influenced by weight loss must be aware of the many forms eating disorders may take in women. When weight loss is a goal in programs centered on health, students are even more susceptible to attaining unhealthy weight management that may take shape in a focus in physical exercise or an obsession about food. Students with lower BMIs who may exercise in order to maintain this weight could be deemed as unhealthy or at risk of being obese due to their obsession that may only be encouraged due to body binary deeming thin healthy imposed by academia as well as the media.

With the amount of obese students on campus support must be given in a ways that do not cause them to feel as if they are broken and need to be fixed. Ostracizing obese students by providing programs that are only aimed at educating them and excluding students with lower weight enforces the idea that students who are considered obese are ignorant. Although this is true in some cases, students who have lower BMIs maybe ignorant to nutrition as well. In any case physical differences can not be used to make assumptions about someone’s lifestyle or health. Health should be promoted to all students, not just students of larger size.



My questions for Bryn Mawr and other colleges are:

Why is obesity deemed an epidemic to fight against while, bulimia and anorexia is a health issue that students must handle on their own?

Why do programs focusing on nutritional and physical health only focus on obesity? Is health really the goal of programs like Owl Fitness or is weight loss the goal seeing that many programs pride themselves on the weight loss of students as examples of success?

 Why are there no accounts of the emotional effect of weight lost programs like Fitness Owls?

Why is there no research or mention of students of different classes or minorities? Since the research found is mostly data from white college students how do programs like Owl Fitness take into account minorities and whether BMI standards differ based on race?

With the media bombarding women with the want and need to be thin do programs focusing on students losing weight only further this societal ideal?

Why is this program ran by thin/normative bodied women? Why is there no representation of fat/larger women within this program?

Why do programs like Fitness Owls call students obese and never fat when obese makes the assumption?

I also want to end with this thought to ponder:




Works Cited
"American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment Spring 2008 Reference Group Data Report (Abridged): The American College Health Association." Journal of American College Health 57.5 (2009): 477-88. Web.
Dennis, Elizabeth A., Kerry L. Potter, Paul A. Estabrooks, and Brenda M. Davy. "Weight Gain Prevention for College Freshman: Comparing Two Social Cognitive Theory-Based Interventions with and without Explicit Self-Regulation Training." Journal of Obesity 2012 (2012): 1-10. Web.
Gardner, Jolynn, Jerri Kjolhaug, Jennifer A. Linde, Sarah Sevcik, and Leslie A. Lytle. "Teaching Goal-Setting for Weight Gain Prevention in a College Population: Insights from CHOICES Study."National Institutes of Health (2013): 1-16. Web.
Harring, Holly Anne, Kara Montgomery, and James Hardin. "Perceptions of Body Weight, Weight Management Strategies, and Depressive Symptoms Among US College Students." Journal of American College Health 59.1 (2011): 43-50. Web.
Lipka, Sara. "On Campus and Online, Students Lose Weight for Credit." Chronicle of Higher Education (2010): n. pag. ProQuest. Web.
Wharton, Christopher M., Troy Adams, and Jeffrey S. Hampl. "Weight Loss Practices and Body Weight Perceptions Among US College Students." Journal of American College Health 56.5 (2008): 579-84. Web.


Anne Dalke's picture

I was very proud of you last week, when you interrupted the lively class discussion we were having, about the need for more education about racial difference, by asking us to pay attention to the identities we were dismissing in the process. You reminded us that health, nutrition, exercise and body image can’t be tossed out in the race to “cure” racial discrimination.

I’m also very glad that you decided to take the opportunity of this web event to learn more about some of the research being done around weight and weight management among college students. I find your focus on Bryn Mawr of particular interest (of course!), in part because of the correlation you draw between the stress of academic achievement and issues of emotional and physical health.  Your frequent critique of binaries (“fat as unhealthy and skinny as healthy” in particular, academics vs. health in general),  and your attention both to motivation and to the dangers of ostracization seem to me right on, as does your list of questions.

Perhaps the most striking bit, to me, in your essay is the explanation that “students with BMI’s under 30 were obviously doing ‘something right and knew how to handle cravings as well as exercise properly and did not need the education that students with BMIs over 30 need.’” There are a number of presumptions underlying that statement, which might well be interrogated; it seems a more academic version of the poster with which you end, about the “cultural meaning of fat—as synonymous with unfit, immoral, degenerate & lazy.”

So (in your words): how to offer support in “ways that do not cause students to feel as if they are broken and need to be fixed”? How not to enforce the idea that obese students--and is that the word that’s wanted-and-needed here?--are “ignorant”?

Do you have thoughts about how you might pursue this project further? Are you interested in doing so?

ndifrank's picture

I think a foundation of self love before direct outreach is the most imporant. If students feel comfortable on campus about their body then they will feel even more comfortable reaching out for help. I think that students support groups would be benefitial as well as large talks about body image. In my experience of wellness, it was more comfortable for speakers to confront eating disorders such as anorexia than to talk about the opposite of the spectrum which are students who eat too much. I think working with the campus to make students feel comfortable with their bodies will allow them to feel less ostracized and problems that need to be fixed. I think that thinking that all obese students are the only ones having problems with health problems due to nutrition and excercise can be changed  by accepting that yes some of them may be ignorant and their body is reacting by gaining weight while some students who are not considered obese may not show their lack of nutrition through their weight because their bodies just work differently. I think overall really talking about weight and body image and using the word fat as a often as thin is used would also help destigmatize not only the word but the identity.  Having speakers that have not just "battled and survived" aneorxia but also speakers who will frankly talk about issues they've had gaining and losing weight. It would nice and comforting to the fat students of Bryn Mawr to listen to someone they identify with. It might even cause more students to feel comfortable coming to the health center, dietician, and gym.

I went to the Posse Plus Retreat last year and spoke about feeling like there was a lack of space at Bryn Mawr for students to talk about their struggles with weight. A lot of students joined my discussion group and expressed their feelings of isolation on campus due to their body image issues. Some of those feelings of inadequacy shared were tied to their body shape that many felt did not match the "typical" Bryn Mawr student who they felt was white and thin. As a talked to more students after the retreat, I found that many students knew someone or were experiencing an eating disorder that began after they arrived at Bryn Mawr. I think that it ties greatly into the race issues on campus as well as class issues. Like I said in class thursday, there are students on this campus who have never been to a gym or talked about nutrition. I really think that the epidemic on this campus is not obesity but self shame and thats what makes me more upset about the difficulty I have had trying to contact resources like the Body Image Council.  Students on campus fat shame themselves and others with the use of micro aggressions and because students are ashamed about their bodies they are not speaking up. Fat is a feminist issue.

I do want to pursue this project further. I am thinking about interviewing various students on campus and asking them what the word fat means to them.I think it would be interesting to unpack the connotation of the word fat on campus. People fear even saying it and I know that if I call myself fat even in front of my closest friends they immediatly feel the need to comfort me by saying " no you're not fat". It would be interesting what Bryn Mawr students will say about the word fat and also how they will react to the word. It could be interesting to also ask them what obese means to them to see if students feel those terms are interchangable or vastly different. Do you think that would be a good continuation? Do you have any suggestions of how I could try to implement body love on campus more or know of people I could contact to help me?

Anne Dalke's picture

So a couple questions back to your questions: what happened when you tried to contact the Body Image Council? Have you connected yet? (I see that their blog is very out of date; that the last public activity was in spring 2010--and yet there was a search for a coordinator last year...). I would be very curious to hear more about how the BIC conceptualizes its mission: is it focused only on anorexia and bulimia, and/or might it be expanded to include obesity and other senses of the body that are self- (or socially-) shaming? Do they frame their mission as being about self-shame? ) If not, might you be able to brainstorm a shared framework together? (That out-of-date blog says "love your student body"--that seems to fit well with your own orientation, yes?)

My second series of questions have to do with your notion of “speaking up.” Where/how in what venues to you want students to speak? What sort of forum might encourage speaking? Does work need to be done to make certain words or forms of speaking available? (The contrast you pose between “fat” and “obese” is a case in point here…) If you know already that people on campus are afraid of using these words, can you even get to the point of unpacking connotations? Or is it your thought that they have to be spoken, before they can be “unpacked”? Is there a word for fatness or obesity that might be claimed/reclaimed with pride, as “queer” or “crip” have been reclaimed? I’ve also heard “large-bodied”; do you hear that as a euphemism, like “differently abled”? Or a way forward, a step away from shame, towards love…?