March 15, 2010
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine:
SRU student researchers counter lies about body image
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. �- Anna Antramsaid it is "really heartbreaking" to watch someone you love struggle with an eating disorder and poor body image. The Slippery Rock University psychology major from Lock Haven has a good friend who has been dealing with an anorexia-type disorder since middle school.
"When we were in seventh grade, she would send me pictures of models and write how many calories she ate that day," Antram said. "She has gone through cycles of getting better and then getting worse for the past seven or eight years. Yet she still really struggles with the guilt of having an eating disorder and finding the will power to eat normally again. My friend's ordeal is probably all too typical for a lot more people than we realize."
Antram and eight other SRU psychology majors are conducting student-faculty research on eating behavior and body image among SRU students. Working with Jennifer Sanftner, associate professor of psychology, the team has surveyed 350 students in an attempt to understand and prevent disordered eating behavior.
"My friend is open about her struggles, but it is nonetheless hard to understand why someone who has always been thin and attractive would essentially torture themselves for so many years," Antram said.
The student researchers are focusing on psychological and societal factors that typically lead to eating disorders among college students. They include issues associated with transitioning to college, life experiences, pressure about schoolwork, relationship problems and destructive media images about weight and status, Sanftner said.
"College students in general have higher rates of eating disorders and what we call 'disordered eating,'" she said. "That means they may not show the criteria for a disorder, but they are significantly preoccupied about food, and they're dieting in an unhealthy manner or working out three or four hours a day."
Students participating in the research project were asked to respond to a series of questions to gage their feelings about food and self-image. Among some of the questions they were asked to score were:
Has worry about your body shape made you diet?
Do you get the desire to eat when you are anxious, worried or tense?
When you feel like you have eaten too much, do you eat less than usual the following days?
I feel that food controls my life.
I am extremely preoccupied with becoming thinner.
I feel extremely guilty after eating.
I compare my body to the bodies of people who are on TV.
The researchers want to determine where SRU students are in terms of body dissatisfaction, eating behaviors and whether problem areas exist. While 90 percent of college students with an eating disorder are women, Sanftner said, men are vulnerable to media and cultural pressures as well. Women models tend to be tall and rail-thin, whereas male models have upper bodies like a Greek statue and washboard abs.
The researchers want to determine where SRU is in terms of body dissatisfaction, eating behaviors and whether problem areas exist. While 90 percent of college students with an eating disorder are women, Sanftner said, men are vulnerable to media and cultural pressures as well. Magazine ads in particular portray an unrealistic image. Women models tend to be tall and rail-thin, whereas male models have upper bodies like a Greek statue and washboard abs.
"The magazine ads and other media apply so much pressure to be significantly underweight to the point where some of them meet the criteria for anorexia," Sanftner said. "This is the image that girls see growing up, and only 5 percent of women fall into the really tall, ideal shape that our culture idealizes. It's like trying to conform to an image that, for many women, biologically, is just not realistic."
The ads and cultural pressure imply that self-worth is established by appearance, which is a lie, Sanftner said. "The implicit message is that if you want to be loved, if you want to be successful, if you want to have status and wealth, you have to look this way," she said. "Who do we look up to - media stars with a lot of money and a lot of status."
Like someone who struggles with binging and purging or insomnia, negative self-image tends to perpetuate itself, causing more problems. 'Once you get on that self-defeating path of trying to be perfect, you never feel like you're perfect," Sanftner said. "We have this myth in our culture that if you discipline yourself, you can have anything you want, look any way you want, be anyone you want. And that's not always true."
Victoria Croft, a psychology major from Butler, said she got involved in the research because there are so many people out there who are affected by media images. She said she especially deplores the "stick-thin, Photoshop image of a woman who could never be a real person on. You just want to get the word out these are fake people."
She also wants to help students find their value in what's on the inside, not appearances. "We want people to recognize that you are beautiful the way you are. You don't have to be what the media says you have to be. Be yourself," she said.
Once the student researchers analyze the survey results, they plan to implement The Reflections Body Image Program on campus to promote positive body image and reduce the incidence of problematic eating. Beginning in the fall, they will recruit women to become peer leaders for the program. The researchers obtained a grant from SRU's College of Health, Environment and Science to launch the program.
"It will teach women to challenge the ideas that we learn from the media and the general culture about how our bodies are supposed to look," Sanftner said. "This can be beneficial to all women and will help empower us to be more positive and accepting about our bodies and make us less likely to turn to unhealthy behaviors in order to try to conform to an unrealistic image."
Students also face temptations in college that were less prevalent at home, such as all-you-can eat dining halls with ice cream bars and sleep deprivation, which can increase appetite, Sanftner said.
Krisi Newmeyer, a psychology major from Bethel Park, said she got involved in the research because she finds it baffling why peers abuse their bodies by eating too much or too little.
"I have so many friends from high school who had problems. Having to watch that is painful because there is nothing you can do," she said. "I wanted to see why it happens and what the pre-cursers are. With some of my friends, I didn't even know they had a problem and then they were in the hospital because they were underweight."
One problem that she has noticed at SRU is excessive exercising. While the benefits of exercise are many, overdoing it can be problematic especially if an athlete doesn't eat enough. "I went to the gym and there was a girl working out on the machines for at least six hours," Newmeyer said.
While she doesn't confront peers, Newmeyer said she hopes the Reflections program will help students eliminate extreme measures. "Every girl has low self-esteem at some point in her life, about weight or something else," she said. "Some people go to extreme measures to make them happier, but in the end, it doesn't do anything."
Whitney Wideman, a psychology major from West Sunbury, said she got involved because she is passionate about proper self-image and wanted a top-notch research experience. The distorted media images, especially for those who are impressionable, are unfair and make her angry, she said, but she blames her male and women peers as well.
"We've heard of people who have had scales outside their apartments for parties and in order to get in, you could not weigh above 110 pounds," she said.
Sarah Mix, a psychology major from Almond, N.Y., said she grew up in a loving, supportive home and never felt the pressure to look a certain way to be accepted. She feels more pressure to conform in college. "A lot of the pressure comes from other women. Women can be quite blunt," she said.
Amanda Karl, a psychology major from State College, said she is conducting a sub-study examining correlations between eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive behavior. She said she stopped obsessing on weight years ago and focuses instead on proper nutrition.
Sanftner said there is good treatment available for those with weight disorders, including cognitive behavioral and rational therapy. Ultimately, she wants the Reflections project to increase awareness on campus and prevent eating disorders. She praised her students for their mature approach to the research project.
"My students have been absolutely instrumental in getting the data collected, talking to classes and getting people in here to take the survey," she said.
Antram, whose friend with an eating disorder is currently 21, said her friend is 5' 2" and weighs 115 pounds. After all the years of awareness about her problem and treatment, she has not overcome her distorted body image. "I'm sure she was affected by the media originally, but she still says she wants to have zero percent body fat," she said.
Other student researchers involved with the project are: Cassandra Hoak of Sarver, Stephanie Freeman of Louisville, Ohio, and Stephanie Kello of Butler.