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Students Supporting Body Positivity combats eating disorders on campus

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The recently revamped Students Supporting Body Positivity (SSBP) club strives to de-stigmatize body image concerns and provide student-based support systems for Stanford students struggling with disordered eating.  

“The greatest danger here is when we assume that no one else is going through something like this, that you’re the only one,” SSBP president Jennifer John ’23 said.

SSBP was created several years ago as part of a research project on student-led support groups. The club eventually became dormant due to lack of student involvement — until John began working independently with a Vaden nutritionist to alleviate disordered eating at Stanford. As John trained resident assistants (RAs) to recognize eating disorders, she came to the realization that disordered eating was a pervasive issue that was not “being addressed in any centralized way,” she said.

John spearheaded the revitalization of SSBP as a club on campus to recruit a larger group of students committed to advocating for healthy relationships with eating and body image. Currently, SSBP has 17 members who are all dedicated to challenging a culture of silence surrounding eating disorders on campus.

One of SSBP’s primary initiatives is to create student-led support groups, partly due to the “glaring treatment gap” that John said exists within the eating-disorder community. While the University offers nutritional and psychological services, John said that “many students are not accessing those resources” or are hesitant to admit that their concerns are serious enough to necessitate a visit to the Vaden Health Center or Stanford Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

By offering a less intensive alternative to medical treatments, support groups offer a “gateway toward getting help that’s really needed,” John said. SSBP plans to launch support groups in late fall or early winter, after they finalize curriculum design and receive feedback from clinicians.

SSBP member Aliza Mehlman ’23 echoed the importance of having a community support system. “In my time at Stanford, I received the support that I needed, but often felt as though I was left alone to outsource,” Mehlman wrote. Even so, she expressed hope that SSBP will assist in “bridging the resource and information gaps that exist on campus” and allowing students to “feel at peace in their relationships with food and body image,” she wrote.

Providing support, resources and awareness for eating disorders is particularly important as the Stanford community returns to campus following a year of virtual learning, and especially as conditions over the last year may have prompted increased levels of stress and anxiety. 

“Stress is a vulnerability factor for anyone with disordered eating patterns, and the baseline stress level many individuals are managing has significantly increased,” wrote CAPS Staff Therapist and Eating Disorder Specialist Emily Caruthers. Additionally, while “the pandemic does not seem to have caused eating disorders,” Caruthers wrote that it “may have increased the severity and symptoms of those with eating concerns.” 

SSBP also plans to collaborate with dining hall staff and administration — individuals that interact directly with students at mealtimes — when disordered eating is “likely to be more pronounced,” John said. SSBP recently held a training for dining staff to provide education on disordered eating behaviors, and they hope to design an informational guide to post across dining halls and common spaces.

In the future, SSBP is considering expanding its services to develop workshops specifically for students of color and students with family circumstances that “complicate access to treatment,” John said. The organization also hopes to develop interactive storytelling workshops that allow participants to express emotions associated with eating disorders through creative mediums.

Caruthers urged students struggling with eating disorders and other related conditions to take advantage of University resources outside of SSBP as well. “It is very common that individuals are not ready to address their eating or body image concerns,” Caruthers wrote. She stressed the importance of seeking help and encouraged “everyone to consider prevention and wellness rather than hoping symptoms or stressors go away.”

In addition to providing workshops on improving body image and relationships with food and eating, CAPS can assist students in starting treatment through therapy and connecting them to longer-term, off-campus services, according to Caruthers. On a student-to-student level, she wrote that “seeing something and saying something is a powerful message of support.”

John encouraged all students, even those who are not personally affected by eating disorders, to raise awareness of the prevalence of disordered eating and body image issues. Engaging in conversation surrounding these personal and sensitive topics is essential to de-stigmatization while encouraging students to seek resources, according to John.

Most importantly, John advised students to be open to learning, as the simple decision to “ask people about how they’re feeling” can mean the difference between suffering and recovery, she said.

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Lexi Kupor is a writer for The Daily. Contact her at news "at" stanforddaily.com.