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Redirecting ‘fat talk’ with the Body Project

image of women in dresses.

With awards season upon us, judging of women's fashion will commence. Image from the Emmy Awards.

Awards season is upon us, and with it abound endless talk of how well women wear designer gowns. That sort of “fat talk”—conversations meant to shame women into aiming for an unrealistic body ideal—is just what the Body Project works to combat.

For the past five years, Illinois State University’s Student Counseling Services and Health Promotion and Wellness have sponsored The Body Project on campus. A national, peer-led program, the Body Project sheds light on negative images and discussions that can lead to unhealthy choices for young women.

image of the Body Project logo“We’re looking to communicate to students that they have value for who they are, not just from their appearance,” said Jenni Thome of the Student Counseling Center, who says the program is in the vein of the national #AskHerMore campaign, which hopes to spark red carpet reporters to ask questions beyond clothing. “It’s about shifting the discussion beyond body to something deeper.”

The Body Project is a two-day, program that engages college-aged women in activities and role-playing scenarios that point out the impact of only seeing thin as an ideal body shape. “Women in our culture have a tendency to bond over body shaming, by replying to compliments by saying, ‘Oh no, I look terrible in this,’” said Thome. “By talking through that ‘body-shaming’ process, they learn how damaging it is, increasing a risk for eating disorder development, body dissatisfaction, and a drive for unhealthy thinness.”

Katie Littlejohn is one of the student facilitators of the Body Project, which runs for two and half hours over each of the two days. She loves how the program shows college women “that what the media portrays as ‘beauty’ is a lie.” Littlejohn, who is an undergraduate intern in Student Counseling Services, took more than seven hours of training to become a peer facilitator in the program, and believes it was worth the work. “The Body Project does a wonderful job pointing out the ‘fat talk’ women partake in without realizing it,” she said, adding that the project also gears women to be healthy, rather than thin.

They are given cues to shut down the comparisons, and validate that every person has the right to look how they want, and wear what they want to feel beautiful. – Jenni Thome

Along with recognizing negative talk, the project also teaches participants to redirect negative conversations. If confronted with ‘fat talk,’ such as “Who Wore it Better?” articles in magazines, Thome said Body Project graduates can work to change the tone. “If talking with friends, they might say something like ‘I think they both look great’ or ‘If she feels comfortable wearing that, then that’s all that matters.’ They are given cues to shut down the comparisons, and validate that every person has the right to look how they want, and wear what they want to feel beautiful.”

Although there is not a Body Project version specifically for men, Thome said Student Counseling Services has tailored co-ed body image programs, such as working with a residence hall floor of student musicians. “We looked at the music industry and how they portray body acceptance and the lack thereof,” said Thome. “We looked at the lyrics of songs from artists like Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars talking about body acceptance, and then contrasted that to award shows and other songs that show a discrepancy in acceptance.

By keeping in contact with the Body Project developers, Thome said versions for males as well as female student athletes are in development. “While the idea for women is this ultra-thin, but curvy, yet toned body, that is not the ideal for all groups. Men are trying to be larger, toned, and muscular. Athletes also have different pressures.”

When they become available, Thome said she would love to have new versions of the Body Project facilitated at Illinois State by students. “Being able to redirect negative conversations is what makes the Body Project successful,” she said. “It explores the messages we receive, who makes money off those messages, what impact they have, and how to move beyond trying to fit into an ideal that does not fit a majority of the population. And that message is universal.”

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