The Body Project fights ‘eating disorder culture’

The program involves four, one-hour meetings


Courtesy of the National Eating Disorders Association

The National Eating Disorders Association trains college-aged women to lead The Body Project on their campuses to combat unrealistic beauty ideals.

Collyn Ballentine, Contributing Writer

“It’s going to be starvation nation tonight!” shouts a tall, thin blonde woman through her door into the common room of a Wake Forest dorm.  

Her roommate says, “I’m feeling skinny and hungry.”

The time is 2 p.m., and the women are already preparing for their sorority semi-formal that night. Part of this preparation includes eating as little as possible to look thin for the event. 

“Sometimes girls won’t eat as much before special events because they want to look skinnier,” sophomore Katie Salnikoff said. 

According to a study from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, a study following roughly 500 girls from ages 8 to 20 found that — when accounting for non-specific eating disorder symptoms — 13.2% had suffered from a DSM-5 eating disorder by age 20. The University Counseling Center did not respond with statistics regarding disordered eating at Wake Forest. However, stories from women on campus demonstrate the prevalence of eating disorders.

In particular, female students mention that the normalization of insensitive comments and unhealthy behaviors have negatively impacted their relationships with food and body image. 

Sophomore Tristan Bullock was impacted by this aspect of the school’s culture as she was in remission for anorexia nervosa in summer 2021 before beginning her freshman year at Wake Forest. According to the Mayo Clinic, anorexia nervosa is “an eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight.” 

Despite her remission, Bullock relapsed as soon as a few days after getting to campus. New friends and peers made cutting remarks that Bullock found damaging.

“My recovery was thrown away as soon as I came to Wake Forest,” Bullock said. “I was surrounded by calories on everything I ate and insensitive comments made by my own friends. I let the comments affect me so much that I ended up extremely sick and was forced to go to an inpatient treatment center before winter break.”

When reached for comment about how Wake Forest supports those who suffer from eating disorders, Assistant Vice President for Health and Wellbeing Dr. Warrenetta Mann noted that the university’s approach to student health focuses on overall wellbeing and pointed to the Embodied Wake website, which houses the information related to Wake Forest’s approach to health and body image.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling we want to hear from you. We want to help everyone be successful here at Wake.

— Dr. Warrenetta Mann, Assistant Vice President for Health and Wellbeing

“We love our students and are committed to supporting them to be well,” Mann said, “The University Counseling Center and the Student Health Service are here to help support students with any eating and/or body image issues they may experience.  We take an individualized approach to provide [students struggling with mental health] with the right support for their situation.  If you, or someone you know, is struggling we want to hear from you.  We want to help everyone be successful here at Wake.”

Mann also stated that though Wake Forest has not received results from the 2022 Health Minds Study, which helped the university to understand how the mental health of its students is faring, in 2018, about 8% of students at Wake Forest said they had struggled with eating or body image concerns, which was lower than two-thirds of the schools surveyed. However, those with eating disorders — as well as other mental health issues — struggled during the pandemic, with the National Eating Disorder Association helpline reporting a 40% increase in call volume.

While eating disorders are not a new issue at Wake Forest — and have likely been exacerbated by the pandemic — new efforts are emerging to fight back against these unhealthy and toxic cultures. 

Last February, an intervention program called The Body Project was introduced to Wake Forest’s campus. The Body Project is a four-week program consisting of weekly, one-hour meetings. Members were split into groups of eight female-identifying students and two student facilitators. Over a catered dinner, members discuss a topic related to the “appearance ideal” and explore how society’s perception of the ideal woman is not a reasonable nor healthy image to strive for.

Designed in the 1990s at Stanford University, it is currently the most successful eating disorder reduction plan that has been studied. 

Sophomore Morgan Moser is one of the female-identifying students trained as a discussion facilitator. Moser, who has struggled with two eating disorders, felt compelled to become part of The Body Project and to act as a force of change for the Wake Forest community.  

“When I got to Wake Forest, it was prevalent that disordered eating was a big issue, whether students restrict food intake to get drunk faster or feel pressure to look a certain way to be accepted by certain groups,” Moser said. “What added to the problem is that it was being normalized in so many ways. There were no student voices speaking out about the problem and  encouraging

 happiness over the perfection of health and beauty. So when I heard that the  Wellbeing Center was recruiting female-identifying individuals as The Body Project facilitators, I was excited to join.” 

Moser explained that The Body Project grew out of concern for Wake Forest’s toxic culture around food and body image. Moser noted that one aspect she has observed that students struggle with is perfectionism.

 “There is an expectation that you must be the best,” Moser said. “You must have something to make you stand out. You could always be doing something more to be better or closer to perfect.” 

According to various female students, the perfectionist culture creates pressure to look as thin as possible.

My recovery was thrown away as soon as I came to Wake Forest.

— Sophomore Tristan Bullock

Junior Camille Murashige shared where she thinks this pressure stems from: “I think Wake Forest’s culture, in its perfectionism, stems from its students generally being high-achieving and above-average students where we come from. And because college is inherently so different from high school in that everything in our lives is centered here, that need to be above-average and high-achieving bleeds into everything — academics, balancing extracurriculars, securing the best internships and even having the ‘best’ or skinniest body because of today’s beauty standards.”

While it is clear from testimonials that Wake Forest has a long way to go to provide a healthier environment for students, efforts by students such as Moser and programs such as The Body Project offer hope for a better future. 

Moser shared the significance of how the The Body Project has helped her during her remission: “It is powerful to hear the stories of women and how strong and resilient we can be in difficult situations. That, in itself, is one of the most impactful parts of working with this program.”

Beyond The Body Project, Moser shared some insights on what individual students can do to combat cultures that feed impossible appearance standards. 

“Instead of comparing ourselves to one another, which I know is so tempting to do, we should empower each other and challenge these norms when we see them on campus,” she said. “Simply speaking up when you hear someone making hurtful comments about themselves can have a big impact.”