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Body image awareness

Awareness advocates help students with eating disorders

At the University of Iowa Health Fair on March 6th, the Eating Disorder Awareness Advocates (EDAA) placed a life-sized Barbie® doll on display. With a height of 5’9” and weight of 110 pounds, the EDAA sought to use this visual representation to highlight the pervasiveness of unrealistic body images in the media. For Nina Aleksic, junior and biomedical engineering major at the UI, it’s an issue that is especially salient to students on a college campus.

“At a college level it’s really important because we are at the prime of figuring out out futures and what we’re doing for the rest of our lives,” Alesic says. “People who are suffering from this are wasting their energy toward things that aren’t helping themselves out.”

Eating Disorder Awareness Advocates is a group of student volunteers that reaches out to students regarding eating disorders and body image issues. The group is sponsored by University Counseling Services (UCS). The program has been in the making for a few years, and was implemented in the fall of 2012.

“I’ve had the idea for several years now and there [was] just never time to get it up and running,” says Eva Schoen, staff facilitator for EDAA and Assistant Director for Evaluation & Research at UCS.

Program volunteers went through an interview process to determine if it was an appropriate fit for them. Once selected, five students went through a training process during the fall 2012 semester for about 1.5 hours weekly. These training sessions involved looking at eating disorders, body image issues, and developing outreach skills to collaborate with others on campus. At the end of the session, students developed creative ways to reach out to the student body.

“I supervise them, I give them feedback about what they are creating, and so it’s been really enjoyable to be involved with them,” says Kelly Clougher, psychology intern and co-facilitator of EDAA. “It’s also fun too because, as a group, we have so many creative ideas and things, and so I feel like there are all different perspectives helping us come up with fun, creative programs that we can implement this semester.”

Being creative is key when trying to reach students about sensitive subjects such as eating habits and body perception. Using volunteer advocates to reach out to students instead of medical professionals makes getting help more accessible. For self-conscious students, the idea of making an appointment with a licensed professional can be daunting.

“If you have a peer that is close to you then you can kinda relate to them on a different level,” Clougher says. “I think that’s just another way you’re able to reach the population.”

Student advocates are reaching their peers through an assortment of channels – all approached with a creative hand. Outreach efforts include information tables at fairs, documentary showings, and panel discussions. These efforts also include reaching out through social media.

“The volunteers all came up with this – this is their own kind of vision that they thought would be impactful for students,” Clougher says. “It’s their creativity and they’re bringing it up. As far as marketing, we have a Facebook page that helps a lot.”

The Facebook page, called ‘Hawkeye Body Image Project,’ is managed by student advocates. Facebook posts involve the discussion of new research and the health movement led by First Lady Michelle Obama. Student-moderated discussions can aid awareness and open a dialogue.

“The overall goal is just to get people aware and encourage them to seek help early, be aware of fat talk and some of the issues in which we do have more control, such as what products we use, how we talk about each other, how we talk about what we are wearing, those sorts of things,” Schoen says. “That is kind of an educational process in nature. That’s how it’s beneficial.”

Student advocates learn a lot from participating in the program. An important part of being an advocate is knowing when to refer students to healthcare professionals, such as the Eating Disorder Network (EDN). The EDN is a multi-disciplinary team of health professionals from across the university that focuses on treatment and prevention of eating disorders. Though the EDN has been in place for several years, it wasn’t until fall of 2012 that the student outreach component was implemented.

Both rewarding and educational, the role of student advocate can also be difficult. “It is challenging – it’s definitely a challenging role, we had to talk about that a lot,” Clougher says. “We give them just a lot of different resources – that was our approach to it.”

Maintaining a positivity is key to the training that student advocates are given. Addressing eating disorders and body image concerns is not about focusing on flaws according to Alesic, but about focusing on the positive aspects that each student has.

“[Being an advocate] was hard at first, but now it makes me more of an advocate to promote healthy eating and to show everyone the positive side to it,” Alesic says.

Though the EDAA is in its pilot phase, facilitators of the program believe it’s already making a difference. After this first year, facilitators will analyze outcome data to measure the impact of the program. In the meantime, the enthusiasm and energy from advocates will continue to help students build a healthy perspective.

“It’s often beneficial for the peers that go through it because they learn a lot, they have a group process, [and] they get really aware,” Schoen says. “For the larger campus community, I think it’s beneficial because we are getting more access, we are getting more people, [and] we have more ideas for how to bridge the gap between the office and the students on campus.”