Students struggling with body image issues find refuge in student organization


Elizabeth James, a graduate student in public health, joins Body Acceptance movement to help Colleen Fitzgibbons, president of the group, with a practicum project. Photo by YOLANDA LI.

Christina Suttles

A few dozen students sat around an ample, rectangular table on the third floor of Moulton Hall Feb. 13 as giggles and small talk filled the room to capacity.

“There are enough new faces here tonight,” a delicate but resonate voice at the table’s end said. “Let’s go around the room, say your name, year, major and something you love.”

National Eating Disorder Awareness week events:

Monday, Feb. 25 and Tuesday, Feb. 26:

11 a.m to 2 p.m.

BAM will have a table on the second floor of the Student Center with activities and resources related to eating disorders and body image.

3 to 4 p.m.

“Love Your Body” workshop held at the DeWeese Health Center Conference Room A.

Wednesday, Feb. 27:

l2:30 to 3:30 p.m.

BAM and the Women’s Studies department will host an Eating Disorder & Body Image Q&A at the DeWeese Health Center Conference Room A.

Students will present their first-hand experience with eating disorders, Dr. Suzanne Holt will speak about body image.

This will be an open forum for students to ask questions to the panel.

7 to 8 p.m.

Love Your Body Yoga, Student Recreation & Wellness Center Yoga Room

Interested participants can register here.

Limited to 30. Attendees will receive a free yoga mat.

The most common answer to the final question? Food.

Colleen Fitzgibbons proceeds to familiarize the group with the night’s agenda. At the top of the list is re-creating human-sized Barbie and Ken dolls on paper.

“If Barbie were life-sized, she would be 5 feet 9 inches tall, weigh 110 pounds with a 39-inch bust and 18-inch waist,” she said. “She would also wear a size 3 shoe,” Fitzgibbons said to emphasize the unrealistic body standards men and women are expected to meet in the United States and abroad.

This is just one of the many campaigns the Kent State Body Acceptance Movement (BAM) has prepared for National Eating Disorder Awareness week, which runs from Sunday, Feb. 24 to March 2.

During the week, students of all makes and models will come together to attract attention to the issues that affect up to 24 million Americans each year — primarily women between the ages of 12 and 25 years old.

In July 2012, Fitzgibbons, graduate public health student, had to complete a practicum for her degree. As a survivor of anorexia, she was always drawn to the cause in order to help those who have also struggled with the disease.

After working on a similar project at Bowling Green University as an undergraduate, she was moved by the influx of individuals — parents and students — who expressed their gratitude and went to her for advice on how to overcome such a profound obstacle.

Thus, Fitzgibbons officially registered BAM at Kent State in Fall 2012.

“Knowing I created something that could possibly help someone’s daughter build her confidence really hit home for me,” she said.

Fitzgibbons, president of BAM, swears by counseling in some form and recommends anyone struggling with mental illness to find someone qualified to assist him or her.

“Counseling is such a wonderful thing, and I think that it has a stigma. But it’s helped me throughout my life,” she said. “So I recommend that someone who thinks they may have some sort of eating disorder or any type of body image related issues — because it is related to so many other health defects — to seek counseling.”

When Fitzgibbons was 11 years old, she was given a dual diagnosis of anorexia and obsessive-compulsive disorder, two illnesses that often go hand-in-hand, after her mother found lunches hidden under her bed.

She struggled with her physical and mental health for more than four years. At 15, she played soccer and simply wasn’t getting the nourishment her body needed to perform such a demanding physical activity. She stopped menstruating, and her pediatrician told her this could seriously affect her ability to have children in the future. This, if nothing else, was the breaking point.

“Even at 15, I knew I wanted [children] as part of my future,” she said. “It just kinda hit home that what I’m doing to my body now is affecting my life; my future.”

Logan Rance, freshman visual journalism major, transferred to Kent Campus from Kent Salem and was a first-time BAM attendee. As she sketched the outline of a larger-than-life eye on the group’s life-size Barbie poster, she nervously admitted she has been struggling with an eating disorder for some time. She said she hopes BAM will give her the support she needs to overcome it.

“[Having an eating disorder] is really alienating,” Rance said. “So it’s nice to know there are other people. I would love to help other girls when I’m older.”

Other students, such as Dara Sherman, freshman nutrition major, had no personal experience with eating disorders but simply wanted to be active in a cause they’re passionate about.

Sherman said she’s always been adamant about enforcing the idea that every individual is beautiful, regardless of his or her Body Mass Index.

“You don’t need to worry about how the media portrays things,” Sherman said. “No, you’re beautiful the way God made you.”

Fitzgibbons is a firm believer in peer-to-peer activity as a form of therapy.

“Students can reach out to other students who are going through the same thing. That peer-to-peer understanding really helps,” she said. “You can’t just recognize that a person has an eating disorder; a lot of times you can’t tell on the outside.”

While an estimated 10 to 15 percent of people with anorexia or bulimia in the U.S. are male, there is only one male member of the Body Acceptance Movement.

Fitzgibbons hopes to connect with members of the Kent State community who are engaged in an “internal conflict” over body-image insecurities.

“I think there is a stigma attached to men with eating disorders,” she said. “The fact is that a lot of men see it as a women’s disease are not going to go out and seek help; they’re going to keep it inside.”

Elizabeth James, a second-year graduate student, has seen the group’s transformation throughout the past year and helped bring it to life when it was only an idea.

“I care about social issues, and I think a lot of self-esteem issues are connected to other health issues,” she said. “So I think this gets to the root of a lot of other issues.”

Fitzgibbons is graduating in May and has applied for a mini-grant to ensure the group will have the funding it needs for next year’s activities. She’s also confident that any number of the long-time members could easily take over her position and do a remarkable job.

During National Eating Disorder Awareness week, students and faculty can participate in “Be Comfortable in Your Genes,” a national campaign localized for the Kent State community.

There will be boxes set up in the DeWeese Health Center, Student Recreation and Wellness Center, Women’s Center and Moulton Hall where anyone can donate pairs of jeans collecting dust in the closet — the ones you think you might be able to fit into again if you ever get back to your “high school body.” The objective is to promote wearing clothes that fit your body type now, and proceeds will be donated to local homeless shelters.

“This whole hush-hush about body image needs to stop,” Fitzgibbons said. ”We need to start talking about it, and there needs to be a discussion.”

Contact Christina Suttles at [email protected].