Look around the Denison University campus. Once you’ve taken in the beautiful grounds and diverse architecture, you might notice something about the student body: as a whole, it’s in pretty good shape.
“I’d never seen so many skinny people until I came to Denison,” says De’Garrica Elliot ‘15, a women’s studies and psychology double-major from Memphis, Tenn.
The issue of weight and body-image is one that shakes college campuses to the core. There have been studies conducted across disciplines about the subject, feminists and racial dialogue and concerns, as well as implicit and explicit experiences of exclusion based on one’s body.
The question for some is how it is possible that Denison could have what seems to be a disproportionate amount of “skinny people” in a country where more than a third of citizens are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Kasi Eastep ‘12, an alumna and current medical student at the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine said in an interview via email that Denison students are privileged because of their access to healthy food and nearby recreational facilities. But she also points out that socioeconomic status plays a role. “Even though Denison has students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, the majority of the school is represented by the middle to upper class.”
Eastep says that class and background are factors in determining weight and lifestyle choices because “many [students] had access to fresh food, exercise and health care as high schoolers and prior.”
Eastep isn’t alone. Ariel Baez ‘16, a studio art major from Boston, Mass. says in his community, it’s not common to see health-conscious people. “One of the reasons is accessibility,” he says. “The closest gym in my area is 10 minutes away in a bad area.”
Baez adds that Denison students have time to carve out a schedule that allows them gym time. “At home, people have jobs,” he said.
Even professors notice a body-image culture at Denison – just ask women’s studies professor Jill Gillespie. “Denison’s dominant culture is such that many female students feel that they must maintain a thin body through diet and exercise,” says Gillespie, who has taught at Denison for 10 years. She asks, “What makes such smart, accomplished women such as those here at Denison unable to resist the social pressure that equates small and thin with ideal?”
A 2010 study conducted by Pavica Sheldon, a communication professor at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, found that higher family pressure, peer pressure and perfectionism caused college students, particularly women, “to compare themselves to the models in fashion magazines and on television.”
Elliot says simply, “The media is awful.” She adds, “If you were raised in a world where there was nothing but media, you would learn to be extremely skinny, to always have long hair and wear make-up and to never grow old.”
But Erin White ‘15, a theater and geoscience double-major from Hampton, Conn. says that in her experiences, “it’s not about the media.” White, a vegetarian says “[my family] drilled into me that physically fit is what you should be.”
White says that she knows several people, including a few Denison students who have had eating disorders. “It’s not motivated by wanting to look like other people. It’s about perfectionism, stress relief, and control.”
“Body image at Denison varies across cultures,” says Elliot. “In the minority community, the ideal body type is someone who is skinny and has a big butt, a ‘thick’ girl.”
Ariel Baez, an African-American student who is the historian of the Black Student Union, says “minorities are on the heaver side of the scale.” For Baez, the reasons are cultural: “There are more ethnic foods [and] we appreciate a curvier body type.”
Elliot, who is from Tennessee, realizes she is in a unique position, being one of a handful of students from the South. “We like lots of fried foods [and] sweet things, [and we’re] really big on fats.” She continues, “There are fruits and vegetables, but they’re really expensive and most people in my neighborhood can’t afford it.” In Tennessee, more than 30 percent of residents are classified as obese, according to the CDC.
White believes that “preppy culture” at Denison plays into the physically active student body. The New England native says “the preppy lifestyle is about being outdoors and the idea of the sporting life — racquetball, tennis, lacrosse and horseback riding. Even if you don’t play sports, you want to look like you do.”
Perhaps the priorities of the average Denison student are out of whack — at least that’s what Gabrielle Rickle ‘15, a communication and black studies double major from Fostoria, Ohio thinks. “Where I’m from, fast food is the way of life. People are more concerned with whether or not they have food than whether or not it’s organic,” she says.
Rickle also points to the gap between the typical body type in her hometown, which she calls “low-income” and the typical body type at Denison. “People aren’t obese in Fostoria; they’re average. But the girls here are so skinny.”
What can Denison do?
In the Oct. 4, 2011 issue of The Denisonian a front page story titled “Sorry, the bookstore doesn’t have sizes over 2XL” featured a student critique of the college bookstore for not carrying larger sizes. James Jones ’12 of Columbus, Ohio was quoted as saying: “The situation promotes a sense of exclusion. For instance, this week is spirit week. The requirement is to wear Denison apparel, but you can’t when your size isn’t available.”
Bookstore manager Joe Warmke, who passed away in September, said at the time that the bookstore only ordered sizes that would sell, and that there had been few student complaints.
For some, the issue of weight and body-image is deeper than whether or not a certain size is sold at the bookstore. “If you’re not skinny, you’re not held up as the standard of beauty at Denison; you’re just average or less than,” says Rickle. She believes that “we should celebrate the differences instead of all looking to be one image that Denison has idealized.”
Eastep says that, as a community, Denison needs more education and awareness. “Weight isn’t always a choice, given factors like genetics, time and financial restraints, [and] underlying medical conditions and illnesses.” Eastep’s conclusion is supported by science: a variation in the fat mass and obesity-associated protein (FTO) gene occurs in up to 1 in 6 people globally, making them 70 percent more likely to become obese.
Baez prefers a more active approach. He thinks Denison should have workshops about body image and the dangers of eating disorders. “We could also shut down Mitchell for a day, just to show people that it’s okay to look the way you look.”
For Professor Gillespie, it’s important to shift the focus from people’s bodies all together. “Why not question why we spend so much time talking about bodies and looks when we could think about how students bring their different gifts, talents, and passions to the school?”