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We've all seen "Mean Girls" and know that high school can be a pressure cooker of cliques and bullying, but college may not be the refreshing atmosphere of self-acceptance it's cracked up to be.
A reported 91 percent of women surveyed on college campuses diet to lose weight, while 25 percent admit to binge eating and purging to manage their size, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). And social media isn't helping. A recent study conducted by Florida State University found that just 20 minutes spent browsing on Facebook could decrease a college-aged women's satisfaction with her body.
One university club refuses to accept the status quo and is gathering a diverse group of students to ignite a serious discussion about beauty — and change perspectives well beyond campus. The University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Beautiful club was founded in the fall of 2013 in the hopes of encouraging classmates to reevaluate what they define as beautiful.
Issues at meetings include a range of topics from UMass-specific issues — like the conspicuous scales in the rec center that make people feel self-conscious, or nutrition labels in the dining halls that some feel encourage obsessive behavior — to universal student issues like a pervasive hookup culture that focuses on attraction over connection.
“We’re trying to change that,” said Adrienne Gagne, a 20-year-old sophomore and the group's current president. “It’s about trying to change an overall attitude on the campus,” and create a shift in thinking about physical appearance. That’s a monumental task, of course, but it starts with small — and social media-friendly — actions.
Courtesy of Adrienne GagneFor instance, one project called “Operation Beautiful” organizes group members to post sticky notes around campus with mantras that focus on inner beauty and other self-worth drivers. “The goal is to show that other people around campus have a different opinion on how much physical beauty matters, and that might cause [individual students to reevaluate], ‘How do I feel about this?’”
And if the media’s purpose is to portray images of beauty that translate to dollars, the aim of the Beautiful club is to plant seeds that motivate a new generation to align its dollars with a different set of characteristics. They've held an anti-tanning campaign, a No Makeup Day and even smashed scales in broad daylight to send a message of empowerment, as chronicled by their campus paper The Massachusetts Daily Collegian.
The group enjoys participation from a wide range of body types, ages, races, and affiliations — from Greek life members (like Gagne) to those on the other end of the social gamut who live in quiet dorms. Attendees are mostly women, but men are welcome — and a smattering do participate.
“We spent a long time trying to come up with a better title because ‘beautiful’ is usually something that describes women, and that makes men uncomfortable,” Gagne told TODAY.com. “It’s more of a feminized word, but we keep [meetings] gender neutral because we do want to encourage [everyone] to come.”
Another goal of the group is chipping away at media images that portray a narrow range of an ideal body type.
Gagne says that small shifts in popular opinion ultimately do catch media attention and cause cultural evolution — even revolution. (Evidence: Size-22 model Tess Holliday, who last month became the largest model to sign a major modeling contract.) So what’s next for the club?
“It’s making our presence known in a variety of different settings to remind people that beauty can be found in all forms. It’s about redefining physical beauty, yes, but also about [celebrating] inner beauty. It’s not always about how long our hair is or how good our body is,” Gagne said.