When Viktoria Schultz recently heard her high-school pal lament over gaining the dreaded “freshman 15” and baring her flesh in a bikini, she made it her summer mission to help the friend focus instead on her inner beauty.
That’s a message Schultz and her Ithaca College classmates learned this year in their IC Beyond Body campaign, which is encouraging college students to look beyond media-driven beauty stereotypes and focus on inner characteristics, such as intelligence, creativity and skill. The campaign also asks others to use language that highlights these attributes over physical image. (The “IC” stands for Ithaca College but is also an acronym for “I see.”)
“She really is beautiful,” said Schultz, 19, a sophomore, about her friend. “It’s sickening how the media can alter that.”
The campaign features social media sites and a website with links to a launch video and videos of students talking about their own body image issues. Students designed, scripted, edited and produced the videos at Park Productions, the college’s media production company. They also recently held a Twitter chat about encouraging a positive body image with NBC News Education Nation.
Future goals include spreading the word to other college campuses and making short commercials.
“We’re trying to communicate to adults and the media now, so it doesn’t affect the young in the future,” said Schultz, who helped produce the launch video. “I want parents to tell their kids ‘you’re brilliant’ … not ‘you’re so pretty.’”
The idea for the social media campaign on promoting a positive body image came from a group of students in a 2015 Media for Social Responsibility mini-course.
Geena Davis, who runs the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, and the filmmakers who shot “The Empowerment Project” (a documentary on positive and power women) also spoke to the students about the importance of portraying women with intelligence and character. Other inspirations for the campaign came from the Always Like a Girl campaign and Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.
“I think my biggest takeaway from that was the power of the media to influence how we see the world and our place in it, said Meredith Husar, lead editor of IC Beyond Body, about Davis’ speech. “She talked specifically about gender representation and how if girls don’t see other women playing important, powerful roles – or simply not being represented at all – it’s hard for them to picture themselves occupying important positions in society.”
Husar, 20, said she wants to help other women avoid the struggles she experienced over a negative body image. She was an overweight child who crash-dieted in hopes of looking like Hannah Montana or the models in Seventeen.
“I eventually developed the healthy habits I have now, but that voice in my head never really goes away,” said Husar.
Carol Jennings, who directs the Park Media Lab in the School of Communications, applauded the students for their hard work and talent. She said one goal of the students was to learn to create messages that make a difference, adding, “The heart of this campaign is about strength and empowering our students.
“They’re trying to be less concerned about external characteristics that everyone pays attention to and instead feel strong, intelligent and creative,” said Jennings, who supervised the students in much of their work. “Just to be able to unleash them (those positive traits) and do good work and not be distracted by all that chatter.”
Kait Watson, 18, was so moved by the Empowerment Project that she suggested holding “empowerment circles,” which could take off in the fall.
“We’re thinking of making it a really safe place to speak out about body image in general. … We’d love to have men in it, too, because it’s absolutely relevant to them too,” said Watson, who discusses her own issues over feeling too skinny in one of the videos.
Spencer Muhlstock, 19, said he wanted to help the many young people who feel inadequate about their body images because of what they see in the media.
“I think what’s important about this (campaign) is it’s focusing on issues that are facing college students and social media, and it’s kind of unfortunately getting worse and worse in a way because of that,” said Muhlstock, who helped create the social media sites and shoot videos for the campaign. “We’re trying to put a halt to that.”
Renee Engeln, a psychology professor who directs the Northwestern University Body and Media Lab, said the students’ campaign was great and spotlighted a widespread problem. She noted that even tweens and teens are airbrushing selfies before posting them on the internet.
Such body dissatisfaction “contributes to depression, anxiety, eating disorders,” she said.
“But more importantly, body dissatisfaction is a really powerful force from turning your attention away from things in your life that need your attention,” said Engeln.
Engeln has done research that shows viewing one’s body for what it can do, rather than how it looks can help combat body dissatisfaction.
“When you think these are the arms that hug the people I love, then suddenly you’re not so worried about whether you have perfect biceps,” she said.