Fat Talk Free week held at UNH to address body image issues

By Lily O'Gara
On October 23, 2012

"Fat" is a term that is heard and used often in today's society, particularly on college campuses. However, from Oct. 21-28, members of the UNH campus, and of campuses across the nation, will strive to erase this word from their vocabulary as part of Fat Talk Free Week.

Fat Talk Free Week is a campaign that encourages young women (and men) to reject society's impossible body/beauty ideals and to ban "fat talk." According to a TIME Magazine article, the initiative is based on a pilot program that began at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas in 2008.

Fat Talk Free Week is a branch of the Reflections Body Image Program, which was developed by Trinity professor Carolyn Becker and the school's Greek life program, particularly the Delta Delta Delta fraternity. Fat Talk Free Week is now held at over 50 universities across the nation.

UNH Health Services and the Eating Concerns Mentors program have been involved since the inception of Fat Talk Free Week in 2008, and the campaign has grown in momentum over the past few years.

Suzanne Sonneborn, a nutrition educator at UNH's Health Services center and the advisor of the Eating Concerns Mentors program, said she believes the cause is essential.

"They [eating disorders and body image] are tough issues to talk about, but nothing is ever going to change unless we do something," Sonneborn said.

The week's slogan is, "Friends don't let friends fat talk." The slogan emphasizes a ban on criticizing one's own body, and the bodies of friends and peers.

"Fat talk" is any talk related to the weight of an individual, including those perceived as being "too skinny." Talking about disliked body parts, how an outfit looks because of one's shape, etc. is banned throughout the week. Friends are encouraged to help each other focus on the positive aspects of their bodies.

Fat talk perpetuates a culture in which a person's figure is viewed as more important than what is inside, and also a culture that causes people, especially females, to go to extremes to fit ridiculous body standards. Consider, for example, the fact that over 10 million American women suffer from anorexia or bulimia. While ending fat talk for a week, or even forever will not prevent eating disorders and negative body image completely, many see the effort as an important conversation and a step in the right direction.

Senior Elise Macdonald, one of the leaders of the Eating Concerns Mentors Program, got involved in part because of the prevalence of the issue.

"I thought this program was a great idea because you see eating disorders and fat talk everywhere," Macdonald said.

Most UNH students recognize the start of the week with the placement of a life-sized model of Barbie in the lobby of the Dimond Library. The Barbie model is life-sized, but with the proportions of a Barbie doll. The idea is to make people realize the absurdity and unhealthiness of trying to attain Barbie's measurements. If Barbie were a real woman, she would have to walk on all fours, would not menstruate, and would be considered anorexic from a medical standpoint. Barbie will be in the Dimond Library lobby all week.

Yesterday marked the new initiative "Mirrorless Monday," a day that encourages everyone to forgo mirrors for the day. Part of the promotion flyer reads, "Trust us, you look fabulous and beautiful! Be kind to yourself and celebrate your inner beauty! You are so much more than what you look like on the outside."

There will also be "inspiration stations" held Monday-Thursday in Union Court in the MUB from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

On Tuesday, Oct. 23, the film "Miss Representation" will be shown in MUB Theater I at 6 p.m. The film explores the relationship between the media's negative representation of women and the lack of women in positions of power and influence. There will also be a discussion following the film.

In addition, at 7 p.m.,on Tuesday,  there will be an online support chat with members of the Eating Concerns Mentors program for those who are struggling with eating issues.

The Eating Concerns Mentors Program manages Fat Talk Free Week and its activities. This program is relatively new, as of spring 2009, and it is one that is a rare find on U.S. college campuses, due to the time and money that must go into maintaining quality and support.

However, Sonneborn said she feels that the time and money spent are well worth it.

"I feel personally that it is important, so I make it part of my work. It's a valued program," Sonneborn said. "We're not going to give up."

The program consists of 20 student peer mentors, half of whom are trained to counsel patients, and the other half of whom work on outreach (particularly social media).

Students who are dealing with eating issues request a mentor online, and then receive initial support via email. The mentee then decides the length of time for which he or she would like to receive help, as well as the contact method (i.e. by phone, email, in-person). According to Sonneborn, mentors have assisted in both short- and long-term cases. All information is kept confidential.

One of the main obstacles the group faces is getting the word out and, even more frustrating, encouraging all of the students who need help to actually seek help. While the group aids several students a semester, especially during the beginning of the semester and during exams, the number of students on campus estimated to have eating disorders versus those who seek help is low.

Fat Talk Free Week is the group's biggest campaign, and helps to raise awareness of both the issue and of the availability of the program.

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