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How My College Sweetheart Drove Me to Seek Out the Body Positive Role Models I Needed

This article was contributed by Sara Winegardner.

Altered images shown in the mass media have a significant effect on the youth of this country. We are constantly being exposed to media, from the moment we wake up until we fall asleep. I believe that an active effort can be taken to change this for the better. If this is having a widespread negative effect on the youth of our country, we should take any actions that we can to fight against it.

When I was a sophomore in college, I had my first serious relationship. I fell hard, and I fell fast, spending every moment of my time thinking about how I could commit my body and mind to my sweetheart.

My sweetheart’s name was Ana. Anorexia, that is.

To be fair, Anorexia had to share me with Orthorexia, but I found the time to engage with both equally. I balanced an internship, freelancing, classes, and exercising but still had time to peruse social media for hours at a time. Between new low-calorie recipes and intense HIIT (high-intensity interval training) exercises, I embarked on my own independent research project with no promise of credit from any professor or university.

I wanted to look like every thin model and fitness guru on my Instagram feed. And I was not alone. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), at least 30 million people suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S.

Results of a study examining undergraduate college students showed that media exposure could be used to predict symptoms of disordered eating, an extreme desire to be thin, and body dissatisfaction in women.  Men were not immune to the images either, and were left with more of a desire to diet and become thinner following exposure to the media images.

These thoughts, however, can easily start before college, in the halls of middle and high schools around the world; however, Western programming has certainly excelled in finding the most problematic images for youth. One study following a group of school-aged girls in Fiji after their exposure to Western television found that participants showed many more indicators of a disordered relationship with food. Interviews with these girls confirmed they were interested in losing weight to look like those characters they were seeing on television. 

But a small group of strong females has taken a stand to remind young women like myself and those girls in Fiji of what a normal healthy body can look like. And it’s working. Iskra Lawrence, a 26-year-old model for Aerie who also serves as an ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association, made waves after taking part in the first #aeriereal photoshop-free ad campaign in 2014. Her Instagram account serves as a place of positivity for young women and men, promoting body positivity and a lifestyle filled with balance.

She’s even spoken out against following certain accounts that can inspire those poisonous thoughts in the minds of young people everywhere and encourages separating yourself from any personalities that lead you to question your own worth. “Don’t follow accounts that you know will make you feel bad,” the model said in an interview with Seventeen. “Follow the amazing accounts and communities that will make you feel good.”

Plus-size model Ashley Graham skyrocketed into the spotlight after landing on the cover of last year’s “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition” and has since released her own book. According to Vogue, she wrote “A New Model” to truly show “what confidence, beauty & power really look like,” rather than adding more fodder to the constant stream of content used to show young people where their supposed “flaws” lie.

Thanks to Iskra and Ashley’s active stances against the norms of the fashion industry, the world is beginning to take a closer look at the health of models. According to Telegraph, two French fashion groups recently banned super-thin models from their advertising and catwalks around the world, enacting a set of rules in a charter “to ensure the well-being of models” prior to the start of New York Fashion Week. 

Iskra, Ashley and a number of others have made a stand and set an example for the industry at-large. The positive response to their efforts as well as the rise in health struggles amongst young adults everywhere just proves that there is a want and a need for someone to stand up against the impossible standards of the beauty industry.

It starts with each of us. Look at what you’re posting on your social media accounts and ask yourself if it is a true reflection of you. Practice positive self-talk and encourage it among your friend groups. We all don’t have to be supermodels, and we’re not meant to be. The mass media and the public need to embrace all expressions of beauty. We may not have millions of followers on our social media accounts, but if we all band together, we can make a change that saves lives.


Photo Credits: 1, 2, 3, 4

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