by Stacie Fanelli
To get to meetings of my body positive club at Syracuse University, SHAPES (Students Helping Acquire, Promote, and Enhance Self-Esteem…I know, it’s a stretch), I have to walk past the university’s newest fitness center, outfitted with glass windows all around and located right above the main campus dining hall. I pass classmates hiding their take-out dessert in their purses, ashamed to eat in front of people who are exercising, as if the two are meant to be kept mutually exclusive.
When I was a sophomore, Syracuse University earned a spot on Men’s Fitness magazine’s ranking of the fittest colleges in America. It was judged on “lifestyle factors” like access to gyms, healthy food choices, physical education curriculum, and opportunities to stay active. I wasn’t surprised. The pressure to be hyper-conscious of one’s health, as defined by popular culture, was pervasive.
Moving into my dorm as a junior after a leave of absence spent fighting an eating disorder, I spotted a bulletin board in the lobby that read “Portion Distortion” and listed dozens of foods which people supposedly often eat more than the suggested serving size. There were red X’s through pictures of the foods, which said to me “These foods will kill you. Avoid them at all costs.” In the dining hall, the “Meatless Monday” campaign, which started out innocently enough as a way to broaden residents’ exposure to vegetarian meal options, has turned into a diet food frenzy. And a weekly newsletter from the “Healthy Monday” campaign recently suggested that I count calories, even download a calorie-tracking app.
Luckily, I picked just the right time to attend Syracuse, because Colleen Baker, who is now a social work student at Columbia and a NEDA intern, founded SHAPES as a safe space to vent about body image-related setbacks in our culture and a group to advocate for the simple message “All bodies are beautiful.” As the incoming president in the fall, I hope to emphasize the Health at Every Size® approach, which should be a great success because author, professor, and HAES® community member Harriet Brown is our club’s advisor.
In April, the campus held its third annual Wellness Week, consisting of therapy dogs and free massages on the quad for stress relief, fitness classes, and a wellness expo, where various local organizations from yoga studios to chiropractors to grocery stores gave out free samples and tips. I was impressed by the wide representation of what the school now considers “wellness;” several aspects of mental health were represented (e.g. “smile therapy”). I’m a bit biased, but I believe the most unique and inspirational event of the week was SHAPES’s own “scale smash.” We got the idea from Southern Smash, a group in the southern US that visits college campuses with scales and mallets and lets students go to town.
I worried for the months we spent planning that with limited funds, we would run low on scales. No one donated to our scale drive, though I heard plenty of comments similar to a friend’s: “I can’t get rid of my scale. I use it to prove to myself that I haven’t gained 10 pounds after a big meal. See? It’s therapeutic.” To my delight, a quick trip to every thrift store in the city the morning of the smash got me 8 scales. People are donating them! It felt like a personal victory.
The smash was a smash. Though it turns out those little devils are pretty tough to crack, we were lucky to have some very angry participants. They first “decorated” the surfaces with either positive affirmations or belittling, hateful things the scale had made them believe, like picturing bowling pins as bullies before knocking them out. I was pleasantly surprised by the size diversity at the event. A number of attendees had recovered from or were in recovery from an eating disorder. But several stopped by to relieve stress and took away a bit of self-confidence. Someone compared the event to that Special K commercial – you know, the one that ripped off Marilyn Wann’s Yay! Scale idea – where women are asked to be weighed in Times Square only to find out that the scale reads “courage” and “pride” before inviting viewers to eat their cereal to lose weight. “Except with this one, I’m great the way I already am,” that person added. It’s not often you hear that on my campus. It was refreshing.
My favorite moment was when a freshman cracked a scale right down the center so that the dial was still intact. She flicked the round piece of paper with numbers all around it with her finger and rolled her eyes. “Seriously? This is what I’ve been obsessing about? This flimsy little thing?” And I watched her tear it up, an adolescence dictated by numbers and perceived standards ending as simply as that.
Stacie Fanelli is a senior at Syracuse University studying social work and planning to concentrate on mental health and addictions. She is the president of SHAPES and coordinates volunteering for Alpha Phi Omega, a community service fraternity. She’s also a middle school arts mentor, a summer camp photographer, and a recent member of ASDAH.