Last week, fresh graffiti was painted across the East Campus bridge. A sharp contrast to the colorful party announcements and greek letters that usually adorn the cement, white letters against a black background read, "Girls leave Duke with less self-confidence than they came in with."
These words-referencing the phrase from the 2003 Women's Initiative report on undergraduates-are one of the many signs that students and administrators at Duke are looking to change the culture of unrealistic physical standards.
"Change has to come from you all," said Franca Alphin, director of health promotion at Duke Student Health. "The administration can't make the change. We have to be more accepting of other people. The critical thinking has to stop, otherwise the culture isn't going to change."
Bridge art aside, students and administrators have taken measures to ensure that the body image problems that plague many on campus are out in the open.
Last semester, Counseling and Psychological Services joined forces with Educating Students to Eliminate Eating Misconceptions and the Baldwin Scholars to bring Darryl Roberts' documentary, "America the Beautiful," to Duke. The film was shown in Griffith Film Theater in October to a packed audience.
Senior Ahsha Merson, a Baldwin Scholar who helped to sponsor the documentary showing, said "America the Beautiful" was a unique and inspiring way to bring attention to unrealistic expectations of beauty prevalent on campus.
The film also sparked a series of "What is Beautiful?" discussions that invited students to talk about questions of body image raised by the film.
In addition, the Baldwin Scholars-a program created to empower girls on campus and a direct result of the Women's Initiative-fliered campus with posters celebrating the diversity of female bodies in 2008. With Baldwins serving as models, the ongoing "Baldwin Body Image campaign" featured posters with multiple images of a different body part.
"Maybe if [women] saw different thighs, different stomachs, different feet, they would see beauty comes in all shapes and sizes," said senior Odera Umeano, one of the organizers of the program.
At Duke and Beyond
Students and health professionals at Duke said the high-pressure environment on campus often fosters a perfectionist attitude toward physical appearance.
"I think problems at Duke are magnified versions of problems everywhere," Merson said. "We are a campus of young, ambitious people. The yardstick we measure ourselves against is harsher than the rest of the world's."
Junior Julia Chapman, another Baldwin Scholar and a member of Pi Beta Phi, said the greek system is one among many factors that tends to promote negative body images for women, for both members of sororities and independents.
"It's not the fault of sororities or fraternities that people have body image issues, but because of the competitive nature on this campus, there is competition of who has the hottest girls," she said. "For women not affiliated with a sorority, it can be difficult to figure out where they fit in in Duke's social system--that affects self-confidence."
Chapman added, however, that she believes that Duke sororities can serve a useful function on campus for women and even help alleviate body image problems.
"I think they do a lot to help women and provide support," she said. "My sorority was one of the big sponsors of the 'America the Beautiful' film."
Attitude is Everything
Changes in society and on campus can begin with small everyday steps, said many of the women involved in combatting negative body image issues.
"Things in society, the world needs to change... it's not about the University," Merson said.
Gary Glass, assistant director for outreach and developmental programming at CAPS, said women at Duke need to be reminded of who they are and why they came to Duke in the first place.
"They applied to Duke because of their intellect, creativity, character, work ethic, aspirations-I doubt there is any woman that applied to Duke because of the body that she has," Glass said.
Umeano said if she had to offer counsel to an incoming Duke freshman, she would advise her not to waste time and energy worrying about how she looks.
"I know she is smart. I know she has goals.... she didn't come to Duke to spend all day thinking about how she looks," Umeano said.
Students also emphasized the importance of passing along a message of positivity.
"If someone says something negative about their body, say, 'Oh I really like your smile,'" said sophomore Anna Brown, a peer counselor for ESTEEM. "Give random compliments to friends and other people. Talk in a positive way about your own body, seeing traits in other people that are positive and beautiful."
Merson tried to illustrate this concept while organizing the "America the Beautiful" event; she took out a tube of lipstick and wrote "You are beautiful" on her mirror.
She said her friends jokingly teased her, but the lipstick remains.
"You internalize the things you say to yourself," she said, "If you say, 'I am beautiful, I am happy,' you will really start to feel those things.... Help your friends do that too."
Kristen Davis contributed to the reporting of this article.
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