This is the final product of the photojournalism class I took this Winter Study. As someone who struggled with my own body image, I wanted to look closer at how the women I compared myself to on a daily basis felt about themselves, in a community and society where your body is a measurement of your worth, your success, and your beauty.
In the last few years, body positivity has been on the rise, with many people and organizations advocating for acceptance and love of all body types, specifically among women. At Williams, where athletes make up about half of the student body, women’s bodies are held to a different standard. This atmosphere heightens struggles with body image among students, but the fact of growing up brings self-acceptance and confidence to these women.
Joelle Troiano, 19, a sophomore at Williams, is a member of CoDA — the contemporary dance group on campus. As a dancer, Joelle puts her body on display constantly. “I think [body image] is something you have to confront even more in a dance environment, you come in every day wearing tights and a leotard, you cannot hide anything. And especially being in that community, there are a lot of skinny people everywhere. There are a lot of girls in my class who are beautiful and perfect and have the dancer body, which I do not have. The dancer body… the most important part is that you’re super skinny and you have a flat chest and flat butt also, so yeah, I have none of those things.”
“I like the parts of my body that are more muscular and that I’ve built up through dance, but like also that goes hand in hand with parts that are bigger in a bad way. For example, my thighs are quite large, and some of that is a very good thing and it’s like I have a lot of muscles there, and some of it is, like, fat.”
“In dance, I think you’re trained to criticize yourself constantly,” says Joelle. This criticism is not limited to form, as she adjusts her leotard in the mirror. “I think there’s the weird phenomenon of once you see yourself and you look bad, you keep trying to catch yourself looking better. They call it mirror face, and that often happens to people when they’re trying to over-perform but it can also happen when you’re just stuck on trying to figure out why you look so bad. There is certain sense of, you know, that the mirror can lie to you.”
At Williams, Joelle feels more comfortable with her own body as a dancer. “It’s less of a problem at Williams…it’s not everyone in that kind of cookie cutter form. I think there is a more diverse body here.”
Lauren Vostal (right), a junior on the women’s basketball team at Williams, sees body image at Williams as an issue coming from athletics on campus. “I feel like a lot of issues recently on the Williams campus have been on the athlete/non-athlete divide, and I feel like a lot of that stems from the fact that there are a lot of these standards, like beauty standards, for both men and women at Williams, and some people don’t think they fit or follow those standards. On this campus, being an athlete is kind of like what the beauty standard is, unfortunately, I wish it wasn’t that because all people, all women are unique and have traits about them that make them beautiful, but I just think in such a small community, we tend to think that the athletes are the ones that have all the beauty.”
Lauren struggles with her own body as well, though outside of the athletic world. “You see the models that have these perfectly flat stomachs or fitness models that have abs and I don’t have that so…I just feel like society has this perfect image and I don’t fit that so I feel like my stomach, for example, isn’t up to society’s standards. When I was younger, in high school, I was more caught up in how I looked because I was surrounded by people who were all so skinny and pretty and I sometimes felt that I didn’t really fit their standard. As I’ve gotten older and came to Williams, I’ve become more confident and been more happy with my body.”
Gabby Martin, on the women’s basketball team with Lauren, is a first-year at Williams. Gabby is a dedicated athlete on both the basketball and golf teams, while training on her own for a marathon this summer. For her, positive body image is different for athletes. “In high school most of my friends were really, really skinny, and I saw that and I was like, ‘Should I not be eating as much or should I be working out even more?’ but I think being an athlete is just different because you have to eat, you know, before games you have carbs, and they want you to eat a lot, and you’re working out so I feel like in that aspect the way I perceive positive body image is different.”
Gabby doesn’t do the extra work — “five days a week, usually double sessions, probably like an hour and a half to two every day in addition to basketball” — because she doesn’t like her body. “I use running as my outlet because basically it’s just you, and you can run out your frustrations and all that negative energy, so I usually feel really accomplished, physically tired but mentally recharged and ready to start my day. When I’m running, mentally it’s a really big stress reliever for me. When something is going wrong or when I have an issue, I’ll go running.”
“I do think there’s a lot of outside pressure with social media and all that, with people editing their photos, and just like that aspect, guys at Williams especially, there’s a certain type of girl or body shape that they really kind of want. I think when I was in high school that really applied to me, especially because I was the only person of color. I had this added pressure that I maintained my body figure. I’ve realized that that’s not something I need to think about anymore, I’m just going to be who I am.” Her family has been a part of this realization, but so has Williams. “Being here this summer during the SSP program changed my outlook and helped me to adjust, like I have a community and I feel safe and comfortable here at Williams.”
Alison Robey, sophomore, is a coxswain for the Williams men’s crew team. Alison has struggled with this role since she began her crew career in high school. “I have to hit certain weight limits and there are different teams that have different standards for requirements they want the coxswains to hit. And those aren’t always just, you know, straight up how much you weigh, like you should look skinny as a coxswain. The worst I ever felt about my body was in high school, like sophomore year. I had a coach who was very negative about that and teammates who were very negative about that, and I had some minor struggles with eating disorders. I’m much more confident saying now, ‘This is what I look like, deal with it.’”
The transition to the crew team at Williams has been good for Alison, as she cites very supportive teammates and coaches more concerned with her health than her appearance. Yet Williams at large has been more difficult for her. “The transition is really stressful. There’s so much going on that taking time out to eat and exercise isn’t always realistic. It’s all new people, I wasn’t doing as well in classes anymore, and when you add it all together, it makes it much easier to get down on yourself about your body. There’s just a lot of very, very athletic people here, and Williams has a weird sort of culture of ‘look how successful I am’ because there are a lot of really successful people here and there are a lot of really skinny people here.”
“I feel most confident about my body when I’m really confident about my life and what I’m doing, that’s definitely really correlated.” On a smaller scale, Alison says she has “good calves; I like my calves.”