June 9th, 2008
10:43 AM ET

Taking 'The Body Project' to campuses

By Shahreen Abedin
CNN Medical Producer

While researching "The Body Project," an eating disorders prevention program that's seeing remarkable progress so far in an area that has seen few if any truly effective programs at all, I interviewed Carolyn Becker, a psychologist at Trinity University in San Antonio who specializes in eating disorders. 

Becker adapted the program's curriculum specifically to be administered to college-age women by their own peers in sorority houses.  Studies show a reduction of eating disorder risks by 61 percent through The Body Project.  

All the sororities at Trinity have been using the body program since 2001, and Becker says the college adaptation has had results comparable to the original model, which was focused on both high school and college-age women and administered by teachers and counselors. 

The program works by making women recognize how "the thin ideal" - the notion that you need to be skinny to be beautiful – is thrust upon us through media and marketing images.  Then, through acts of "body activism," like leaving "you are beautiful" notes in dieting books and posting similar messages in public restrooms, participants begin to reject the thin ideal for themselves and their own bodies.

According to Becker, we're about to see this project implemented on college campuses on a grand scale, mainly because of the role of Delta Delta Delta (a.k.a. Tri Delta), the national sorority that has rolled out the program in eleven of its chapters so far.  Tri Delta funded the publication of the college-based curriculum, which will be available to any college that wants to use it, and although Becker doesn't have definite numbers, she tells me she conservatively estimates that we'll see the program implemented in at least 20 to 25 college campuses in the 2008-2009 academic year.   

It makes me think about my college days, when I was finally on my own and could make a 2 A.M. fast food run or eat cookie dough for dinner, without having to answer to the parentals.  Now that I think about it, it was one of those first steps of adulthood:  having complete autonomy over my own eating habits. 

How did your college experience shape how you eat as an adult?  Did you basically stick to what you were already doing at home?  Did you put on the 'freshmen fifteen, or was that just a myth for you?  Did you end up losing weight in an effort to conform to aesthetic ideals instilled in us on campus?  Did you feel like you were under a lot more pressure to conform than you were in high school? 

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soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Caroline

    I actually lost weight in college - I switched from a sedentary suburban lifestyle, to walking everywhere at college since I didn't have a car! Instead I got the "graduation fifteen" - gained 15 pounds after I graduated and got a sedentary office job. I'm working on losing that now. If I could still walk everywhere I needed to go, I wouldn't need the gym!

    I also felt much more secure about my looks in college than before. This had a lot to do with the college I chose to go to, where I found a great, supportive community. I avoided a social scene that was hyper-competitive about looks. I now attend graduate school at a university whose undergrads do have such a social scene. It's high-pressure and unhealthy. I can avoid it as a graduate student, but undergraduate women get hit hard with the unrealistic beauty standards.

    June 9, 2008 at 13:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Grace

    How did your college experience shape how you eat as an adult? Did you basically stick to what you were already doing at home?

    It was very nice to have a cafeteria meal plan and not have to cook so we could focus on studying. However, that plus the fact that we don't have "home economics" in high school these days means that most people my age don't know how to cook and don't have much time to.

    Did you put on the ‘freshmen fifteen, or was that just a myth for you?

    I put on the "sophomore fifteen." It was because that year my residence hall had free unlimited soda and sugary juice dispensers available 24/7.

    Did you end up losing weight in an effort to conform to aesthetic ideals instilled in us on campus? Did you feel like you were under a lot more pressure to conform than you were in high school?

    The opposite. I gained weight in college which is a good thing for underweight people. There was much less peer pressure in college than in high school. Almost none. College has a much larger and more diverse population. Among the thousands of classmates, you can choose your own peers.

    It seemed like most of the people with eating disorders were in sororities. Interestingly, the Tri Delts in particular.

    June 9, 2008 at 13:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Melissa

    As a college-age female, I have most certainly experienced the complexities of eating well and staying healthy in a college environment. It is most certainly a careful balancing act- the temptations of late night pizza and fast food, drinking, and all other manners of fun and spontaneous calorie consumption are all very much present on any campus.

    I have to say that I think it's very impressive that a sorority nationally took the initiative to make this program available to college-age women throughout the country. As a member of a Greek organization myself, it is even more affirming to see what awesome things are being accomplished by sororities on the national level. Taking jabs at Tri-Delts for appearing to have eating disorders is simply uncalled for. Readers should celebrate the fact that a group of young women worked together to promote a program that clearly has many benefits to offer college-age women during an important time in their personal development.

    June 9, 2008 at 16:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Jennifer

    Loving yourself the way you are seems like a good idea. However, the reality is if you want to be HEALTHY, you need to be fit. The message should be to love yourself enough to take care of yourself.

    June 10, 2008 at 09:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Lena

    I've just finished my first year of university, and I certainly felt new pressures surrounding body image and being thin. I was completely in control of my life during high school. Everything was familiar and comfortable in my life. After starting university in a new city far away from home with zero immediate support, I felt completely out of control. The change in lifestyle caused me to put on a few pounds, which terrified me. I soon became obsessed with counting calories, excercising, and restricting my diet in attempt to be thin. It was the onlyt hing I had complete control over during this vulnerable time in my life. Luckily I got help and was able to get back on track before anything got too serious. I still struggle wtih body image, but I think that as I get more accustumed to my new life and surroundings things will only continue to get better.

    June 11, 2008 at 12:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. mary

    Whether thin or heavy is not nearly as impotant as being healthy I wish the emphasis was on being heathy and not on body image. The "struggle" should be with staying healthy, not body image.

    June 11, 2008 at 17:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Lauren

    I hope the NIH focuses on small colleges, too–where most college kids ARE.

    June 11, 2008 at 23:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. C. A. Dover, NH

    I started college back in the early 80's, before many of us college aged women knew what an eating disorder really was. I did not put on weight until my senior year, when had to work full time to pay for school as a full time student, leaving me no time for exercise. However, my freshman/sophmore year roommate had been diagnosed with anorexia when she was in high school. It was a rollercoaster ride living with her, especially during the second year. She woud alternate between starving and binging whenever she was emotionally distressed. The guy she was dating during this time capitalized on it, and would repeatedly berate her for being fat or lazy whenever he wanted to control her. The times his insults didn't work, and she didn't start the starving/eating cycle, he would beat her, guaranteeing the cycle would start all over again. I saw it crush her self-esteem, and I felt helpless to stop it.
    I moved out of that environment after three semesters, but I was very sensitized to it afterwards. Looking back on it, I wish there was a program like the one described here that could have supported her. I and our other dormmates did the best we could to help her, but we had no idea how to. Information like this might have saved her the punishment she did to her body, and the punishment she endured at his hands.

    June 12, 2008 at 12:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. GF

    I loved college because I did not have the pressure like high school to look "perfect". People just weren't as judgemental unless you were in a sorority which I avoided. I was skinny all my life up until my senior year of college when by the time I graduated I had packed on 15 lbs. Since I was young, I was able to lose it all within a year. Fast forward to my mid 30's and the 15 lbs. have found me again only this time it's much harder to lose.

    June 13, 2008 at 14:43 | Report abuse | Reply

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