By Amy Gu
Body image issues prevalent nationally are just as prevalent at BB&N, according to a recent survey conducted by s students working with Mass General Hospital’s Teen Mentor program. Intended to raise awareness and provoke discussion about the school’s body image culture, the survey revealed “telling and powerful” results, program member Sarah Dahl ’15 said.
The survey reached a total of 294 respondents split between 161 males and 127 females. Of those, 56 percent of females and 37 percent of males reported feeling pressured to change their weight. Among those, 61 percent stated that the pressure comes from themselves or parents.
Guidance Counselor Sarah Vollmann, who spearheaded the project and supervises the involved students—Sarah, Sophie Taibl ’16, Maeve McNamara, and Chloe Tinagero (both ’15)—said that the findings mirrored her expectations.
“I was not surprised by the results,” she said. “I don’t think our school is by any means isolated on this issue. It’s an issue in our entire society.”
Maeve hopes the survey will act as a wake-up call.
“A lot of people want to believe that body image isn’t a problem at the school, even though the survey results show that it clearly is,” she said.
Statistics from a nationally representative study done by The Today Show and AOL.com in February bore similarities to those produced by the school survey. In the national survey, 72 percent of teenage girls said they worry about appearance most days. On average, females in the school said that they think about their appearance “many times a week” as opposed to the survey’s other options: “hardly ever,” “a few times a week,” and “multiple times per day.”
Nationwide, 41 percent of females reported that social media impacts their self-confidence and appearance ideals—only one point higher than the percentage of BB&N students who reported the same.
Sifting through 152 write-in responses to the question, “What are the school’s ideal body types?”, the girls who issued the survey found respondents had a lot to say on the topic. But a striking 86 percent mentioned “skinny” as a component, and 64 percent included “athletic” or “fit.”
“Almost everyone is skinny,” one person wrote. “I have yet to see an obese or ‘larger’ person at this school.”
“Fat people are discriminated against at BB&N,” another replied.
The responses reflected what Ms. Vollmann described as the “athletic and driven” mindset in the school—one in five survey respondents reported feeling pressure from a coach to change their weight at some point.
“I think it’s particularly tough dealing with messages on idealized body size in sports where weight matters, such as crew, gymnastics, and wrestling,” Guidance Counselor Douglas Neuman said.
Zach Boughner ’15, the first boat coxswain for Boys Varsity Crew, said that he had not witnessed this pressure in action.
“Weight is a part of the sport, but I’ve never seen a coxswain who felt like he or she had to lose weight to participate,” he said.
On the other hand, Rachel Deal ’14, the first boat coxswain for Girls Varsity Crew, had—despite the school’s lack of an official weight limit.
“I’ve felt pressure to eat less and drop weight for the team, to stay under 110 pounds,” she said. “Before big races, some of the coxswains will publicly refuse anything but salad. I think this feeling is reinforced by the team, even though coaches have never mentioned weight as a factor.”
Other students felt that the self-consciousness Rachel described permeated the Commons during lunch.
“I feel like I’m doing something wrong if the amount of food on my plate isn’t the same as it is for everyone else,” Nick Bator ’15 said.
“Sometimes, people will make comments,” Maeve said. “They’ll say ‘That’s all you’re eating?’ when I’m not feeling hungry or running late.”
“So, whatever you do, you get judged,” Nick added.
Survey respondents also shed light on the gender divide in terms of tolerance. Over half of everyone surveyed responded that males were more tolerant of differing body types, while only one-third believed females were more tolerant.
“Girls are more catty and say things behind other people’s backs,” Maeve said. “However, I think that everyone perpetuates the problem.”
After administering the survey, Sarah, Maeve, Sophie, and Chloe pasted student-selected magazine pages to the communal blackboard outside the library and invited students to weigh in on the media’s effect on how we perceive and define beauty.
Sarah said that the display was meant to expose the flaws in society’s ideals.
“We wanted to get the message across that what is idealized in society, especially the media, is not what it should be,” she said.
In fact the display elicited mixed responses.
“I loved the blackboard because it brought to light an issue that is not given enough attention, in my opinion,” Sarah DeVellis ’15 said.
“The board was a good first attempt at starting a dialogue,” Sara Allan ’14 said.
However, Sarah Dahl reported hearing “backlash” from other students over the blackboard’s “unclear purpose.”
“People didn’t understand that the images on the board were not our ideal of beauty, but pictures that students had chosen,” she said. “They were offended by the title—‘Hot or Not?’—which we intended to be satirical.”
Julia Vance ’14 believed more thoughtful planning could have prevented some of the negative responses.
“The board could have been organized differently before it went up, and then it would have been received more positively,” she said. “However, I think that the core purpose came from positive intentions.”
“Above all, whether you liked the blackboard or not, it sparked discussion about something that no one at the school seems to want to talk about,” Sarah DeVellis said.
Ms. Vollmann said that generating discussion was the goal.
“Starting a dialogue and raising awareness is the first step,” she said.
“I wish there were an easy change,” she added, “but the roots of body image go very deep. People’s perceptions and feelings have to change slowly.”