Body image: shapes, sizes, sexualities and the impact of society

By Alex Finkel

In the corner of a musty garage, next to a bear pelt tacked to the wall and under strings of Christmas lighting, I nervously peeled off my clothes.

Breath short. Hands shaking. My mind going in a million directions. Each movement—awkward yet methodical. And as each piece of clothing fell to the floor, I strategically placed my hands in a new position. Soon my pink Old Navy flip-flops were all that remained. Bare-assed and heart thumping, I stood in a room with 50 strangers, people I had never seen before or spoken to, and people I secretly hoped to never see again. In my still trembling hands, I held a towel, which I had been instructed to bring along in case I was going to sit down, and my BlackBerry, my only lifeline to the outside world. But these strangers seemed preoccupied. They didn’t care that I had just dropped trou. I knew I was far from perfect. Why weren’t they staring?

I was 12 the first time I went skinny-dipping, the only other time I’ve been completely nude in public. But it was that night, while my best friend and I complained about our chubby pre-teen bodies, she revealed she had been binging and purging for the last few months. A couple weeks later, another friend confessed she had been purposely skipping meals. And a month after that, I caught yet another girl vomiting in the school’s bathroom. By the time seventh grade was over, six of my close friends confessed to having eating disorders, whether they binged and purged, over-exercised, starved themselves or were addicted to laxatives. Most of the time, I knew all about it. They had all sworn me to secrecy, and in a desperate attempt to keep my friendships (because I somehow thought not having an eating disorder precluded me from being friends with these girls), I kept my mouth shut. Then there were the times I wished I had one. And I tried. But when my friend handed me the hairbrush, and I stood over the toilet, I was too scared to go through with it. Even by myself, I tried multiple times with my finger, a toothbrush or anything else sharp laying around my bathroom. But as soon as the gag reflex hit, I chickened out. And so it continued. When I was with the girls at lunch, I’d skip meals. But the second I was home, I’d stuff my face with just about anything I could find in the refrigerator. And when I realized what I had done (like eating an entire pint of ice cream), I quickly washed up the dishes and hid the evidence in the garbage or underneath the couch or anywhere else where I was certain no one would find it.

The Chicago Fun Club was founded last fall by Steve*, a Northwestern Law School dropout and a big guy with a large gut and an even larger head of hair. “I got kicked out of law school twice,” he says. “I wasn’t even failing. I just didn’t want to go to class.” But nudism came calling. It gave him the freedom to be himself, he admits. Steve and his girlfriend Katie* began the Fun Club for Chicago nudists to meet monthly for various activities and social events like bowling or costume parties (which I learned later could include anything from just masks to body paint). But like any club, there are rules. Participants must be 21. There is no sexual behavior. There is no staring. And if single men are interested in attending, they must go on a “coffee” with Steve to discuss their intentions. Plus, it ain’t cheap. Couples are $25, single men are $45 and single women range anywhere from $10 to $15. Steve says the high price deters the “freaks” and makes sure only nudists attend. “It’s not about sex,” he says. “There aren’t creepy old men looking at young girls.” And erections just don’t happen. “In my 12 years of doing this, I’ve never gotten one,” he says. “And I’ve never even seen one.”

Steve stresses the Fun Club is about body acceptance. “It’s the one place in the world you will go, and you won’t be judged how you look,” he says. Saturday’s meet-up was a mix of ages, body shapes and sizes, and sexualities. Men and women played pool, lounged on sofas or sat at the bar drinking beer. It was no different than any party I’ve been to off campus. Steve told me his friends were “normal” and they enjoyed being nude, but I had my doubts (and so did the few people I told, who were certain I was about to be murdered). And yet, conversations seemed normal enough. People chatted about their kids, their jobs and the (nude) vacations they had been on. One woman, Janice*, must have noticed my awkward body positioning and reluctance because she explained her first time had been a shock too, but I’d get used to it. “I had to have three glasses of wine before I got naked,” she admits. “Of course I’m busy thinking about how good I look, but none of these people care about that. I’m accepted for me.”

Imagine my surprise when I realized she was right. It didn’t take long for me to forget about my cellulite-ridden ass, oddly-shaped breasts or rolls of fat which had been so easy to hide behind leggings and over-sized tees. Soon I barely noticed the dozens of bodies that surrounded me. Instead my eyes somehow stopped when I got to their chin, and I was suddenly much more interested in what they had to say than how big they were.

When I got to NU, I thought I had left my body image issues far behind. That was until I (like everyone else) gained the freshman 15, couldn’t fit into any of my jeans and refused to purchase a larger size. So I bought dozens of leggings, because they were the only things that would fit no matter what size I was. And I lied. Over and over again. “I wasn’t hungry,” I’d say to my friends. “You know I only eat one meal a day.” My meals were sporadic. And I’d spend hours in front of the mirror dissecting every part of my body, squeezing here and there, and wishing I was somehow different.

Of course I’m far from alone. When Alyssa* arrived at NU, she says she immediately felt the pressure to be thin and felt unsatisfied with her body. “I started binging and purging,” she says. “That lasted a few months, and then I got control of it and calmed down.” But it returned her sophomore year. “I thought I was strong enough to do it on my own,” she says. Alyssa admits it slowly consumed her life, distancing her from her friends and her schoolwork. “It was all I thought about,” she says. “It was exhausting.” When she realized she was never going to be able to help herself, she took that first step to recovery. “I went to CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services), but the first time I went, I didn’t go through with it because I was too scared,” she says. “But I convinced a friend to walk with me to that first appointment.” CAPS sat down with her but ultimately referred her to an Evanston doctor. “It almost deterred me from getting help,” she says. “I was afraid that if I went outside NU, it would be expensive, and I’d have to tell the insurance and then my parents.”

For Alyssa, college presented far too many pressures than she was unprepared for. “Before coming to college, I gained some weight because I was just coming into my adult body,” she says. That struggle was only compounded by her experience on a dance team. “We had this choreographer who helped us out with our routines, and she’d say, ‘Oh, you girls are dancing in front of thousands of people. You need to look like athletes, and you don’t,’” Alyssa says. The mandatory workouts, the uniforms and the inherent pressure in the dance world ultimately proved too much.

In February, Ashley Rolnik (Weinberg ’08) published a study in the research journal “Sex Roles” that found sorority rush led to distorted body image. The study, “Here’s looking at you: self-objectification, body image disturbance, and sorority rush,” surveyed 127 freshmen women at “a mid-sized, private, Midwestern university.” Rolnik’s research found that because pledges are often evaluated by their outward appearance, there is an extreme amount of pressure placed on them. The study discovered the mean score on the Eating Attitudes Test, which is used to measure eating habits and opinions, for those who did and did not rush, was “well below the proposed cut-off score that indicates a clinical level of eating disturbance.” The study also found that “women who participated in sorority rush had higher levels of self-objectification” because of the ­negative correlation between body mass index and ultimately rushing a sorority.

But Alyssa says none of that is surprising. “I would never say I felt pressure from my sisters to be thin,” she says, “though I’ve heard women in other chapters who have felt that way. There are just too many opportunities to compare yourself.” Now a senior, Alyssa uses her experience to recognize the tell-tale signs in other women. The struggle with body image is far too common here, she says. “It’s refreshing when I come across someone who is confident,” she says.

Positive body image is one thing Victoria Thieme is sure she has. “I went to an all-girls school, and they implemented self-esteem within us,” says Thieme, who adds she has always been comfortable with nudity. When she arrived at NU, she says she was surprised at how different it was from Arizona, where she grew up. “People aren’t into the curvier, more feminine figures here,” the Communication sophomore says. “I’ve never seen that before. Here the people want to be stick thin. There is a definite pressure to be super skinny.”

But Thieme says the pressure doesn’t get to her. Next month, she will audition for Playboy and hopes to follow in the footsteps of the two NU students who bared it all in the past.
Lasting two and a half hours without clothes didn’t give me the kind of confidence Thieme has. There’s no way I’d ever pose for Playboy even if more than 50 people have now seen me naked. Public nudity didn’t necessarily free me of my body image issues, but for once, I felt equal. As I walked out, one of the nudists asked me if I’d ever return. “Probably not,” I replied with a smile. “But there’s no doubt I’ll remember tonight for the rest of my life.”

*Only first name has been used
**Name has been changed

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