7 Ways to Engage Students with Body Positive Programs

My last semester of college was particularly hard for me, which came as a surprise because I had always dreamed that my senior year at Penn State would be the best year of my life.

Turns out that even as an involved student with a job lined up post-graduation, something was still holding me back from engaging fully on campus — I was struggling with an eating disorder.

This was a rather shameful experience due to the fact that I was a nutrition major. But that meant I was constantly thinking about food — how many calories are in a gram of protein, what foods are good sources of iron, how does caffeine consumption impact calcium absorption and impact your potential to develop osteoporosis in the future. When body image issues developed, it was hard to find anywhere on campus for me to escape thinking about food.

While I know it was a double whammy being a nutrition major, we know that eating disorders and body image issues are all too common on campuses.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 25% of college students struggle with an eating disorder. We also know that despite the stereotype, that number is not only women. A study back in 2011 found “the rate of eating disorders among college students surveyed from one college increased from 7.9% to 25% for males and 23.4% to 32.6% for females over a 13 year period” (White, 2011).

I knew my struggles were getting out of hand when I realized it was impacting my social life. I started to avoid programs that I wanted to go to because I knew there would be a surplus of pizza or ice cream there. I avoided taking my residents to the dining hall because the all-you-can-eat style buffet was overwhelming to someone trying to track calories.

Reflecting back on my experience as a senior made me think that going through something like this as a first-year could be the difference between graduating or not.

After graduation, I worked as a Hall Director and I started to focus on ways to educate students on body image and healthy eating habits. My first year I taught a cooking class for our extended studies program and then worked with the Health Promotion Coordinator to plan wellness events in the residence halls.

I noticed students were very interested and responsive to the topic of body image and wellness, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of events or programs related to it on campus. National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (#NEDAweek) is a great opportunity to bring some new program ideas to campus.

7 programmatic ways to support students struggling with eating disorders - NEDA week - presence blog


1. Offer programs without food

It can seem counterintuitive to plan programs without food on campus. After all, isn’t food our best marketing tool? For many students struggling with an eating disorder, food can be the very factor the deters them from participating. Instead, try planning some programs without food. If food is a needed as a way of providing resources to students who are lacking, consider healthy food options like salads, fruit and veggie trays, or popcorn.

BONUS: Track how many programs and events your campus offers with food and without food to see how inclusive your campus programming is as a whole.

2. Bring a speaker to campus

One way to interact with the community is to plan a speaker to visit campus who is knowledgeable in eating disorders and open it up as a resource for the community.

Jenni Schaefer is an author and speaker who shares openly about her experiences in a way that can connect with recovering students as well as students who might just want to learn more. Here is a list of experts who speak about their experiences

3. Body positive photo booth

In the days of Snapchat and Instagram, photo opportunities have never been more appreciated. A great way to engage students about their body and encourage positivity is to have a body positive photo booth where students can write down what they love most about themselves and then hold it up in their picture. Make a specific hashtag for the event and encourage them to share it on Instagram or create a Snapchat Geofilter and the event will practically market itself!

4. Positive messaging

For many students struggling to love their body, looking in the mirror jumpstarts negative self-talk. Going to restroom between classes or brushing their teeth in the residence hall bathrooms at the end of the day create opportunities to focus on the negatives they see. Create a messaging campaign across campus that puts positive notes on all mirrors.

There's nothing you can't do

Small comments like “You are strong” can shift the focus toward inner beauty, and posting questions like “what are you proud of?” can change the self-talk to be positive.

5. Weightlifting class without mirrors

A program like a fitness class without mirrors is a perfect way to encourage participants to refocus on their own body instead of comparing theirs to others. This can be done with yoga, Zumba, or even weight lifting. Without the visual aid of a mirror, participants must connect with their own body’s movements and, ultimately, have a practice that is solely their own.” Katie Gordon – Health Promotion Coordinator at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

You don't need a mirror to know you look good - Adventure time Gif- body positive

Of course, maintaining proper form is important, so having well-trained instructors to help correct any unsafe movements is essential.  

6. The Body Project

If your campus is looking to make an impact year round, The Body Project is a great way to empower your students to educate each other peer-to-peer, while also providing a lasting impact on campus. “Randomized prevention trials conducted by eight independent labs have found the Body Project reduces thin-ideal internalization, body dissatisfaction, negative mood, unhealthy dieting, and eating disorder symptoms.”

This program is slightly more time-consuming as staff needs to be trained over time and it’s ideal for a head facilitator who is experienced in clinical training. However, the discussions and activities to educate students about body image and thin-ideal are effective across campus.

7. Provide anonymous screenings

With the rise of mental health concerns on campus, we have seen an increase in wellness-focused events for students. This is the perfect opportunity to provide students with a free anonymous screening either on a tablet or laptop at the event or by printing this link on a handout at the event so they can take it in the comfort of their own space. Be sure to include information about where students can talk to a professional in case they are concerned about their food habits.

Creating a healthy relationship with food can take years to develop. While most of us on campus aren’t qualified to diagnose or help students to recover, we can help to create an environment that is welcoming to all. National Eating Disorder Awareness week is just one opportunity to bring attention to their needs on campus.

Editor’s Note: Hey reader! We recently released a podcast that you might enjoy. Here’s an episode that’s related to this blog post. You can learn more about Will There Be Food? here. 

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Tricia Timney

About the author: Tricia is a freelance writer, coffee lover, marathon runner, amateur curler, and world traveler. She's available for writing and blogging projects, especially related to travel, wellness, and higher education. You can contact Tricia at tricia.timney@gmail.com or on Twitter at @TriciaTimney. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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