UMD SGA’s second mental health town hall opens discussion on body image, eating disorders

Psychology professor Dr. Monica Kearney speaks at the Student Government Association's virtual body image town hall on Nov. 16, 2020. (Lyna Bentahar/For The Diamondback)

The University of Maryland’s SGA co-sponsored a body image town hall Monday night, opening a conversation about how society and intersectional issues affect students’ psychology and fuel disordered eating habits.

The town hall’s panelists came together to discuss coping mechanisms that can serve to improve body image and self-confidence, and also addressed ways to talk about eating disorders with family and friends. 

The Student Government Association’s Student Health Advisory Committee co-sponsored the town hall with Active Minds at Maryland, Lean On Me College Park and CHAARG. This was the second SGA mental health town hall this semester.

Conversations about body image have generally revolved around positivity and health, but Dr. Monica Kearney, a university professor of psychology, and Dr. Erica Merson, a psychologist at the Counseling Center, say that improving confidence in your body is actually a matter of putting your focus on building confidence elsewhere.

“We tend to take our confidence issues out on ourselves through our bodies,” Merson said. “One of my answers … is to be thinking about how we can be doing reaffirming things for ourselves … things like engaging in activities or relationships with people that we find affirming.”

But the panelists agreed that when people feel conflicted with their body image or develop eating disorders, it becomes difficult to have the conversations necessary to work through those feelings within their own friend groups or families — especially when preconceptions about body image, eating disorders and gender come into play.

Pauline Sow, the SGA’s director of diversity and inclusion and one of the town hall’s panelists, described how her own experiences with eating disorders were often overlooked or misunderstood because her friends didn’t understand the root cause of the disorder: a means to take control of an aspect of her life when everything else “felt so out of control.”

“The way that my friends would talk to me about the issue was very much based off, like, ‘Oh, you’re beautiful just the way you are,’” Sow said. “But that wasn’t necessarily the perspective that I got into the eating disorder from.”

[UMD Latinx organizations hope stronger relationship with SGA will help outreach efforts]

Shoham Ghosh, the SGA’s director of health and wellness, said the first town hall didn’t do enough to address the different factors that contribute to mental well-being.

“There are more delicate issues that we feel we weren’t able to touch upon in the mental health town hall that still merited a conversation,” Ghosh said. “One of these is body image.”

Creating intersectional conversations was also a key priority for Ghosh, which is why he brought on Sow to join the two psychologists as a panelist at the town hall, calling body image and diversity and inclusion “hand-in-hand issues.”

Kearney described how “mainstream” beauty standards might clash with beauty standards inside communities of color and among different genders and sexualities.

“It could be very difficult for women of color to figure out what beauty standard they are striving for,” she said. “When things feel out of control — that can be a way of them trying to find control.”

As the SGA continues to encourage conversations within the student body, SGA President Dan Alpert said he’s also working with the university administration to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of mental health resources on the campus. 

After campaigning to destigmatize mental health on the campus, Alpert has started to focus on the process by which students get access to the Counseling Center, the health center and their resources.

“We can try to clean up some of the redundancy in the health center and in the Counseling Center and make a much more streamlined approach to getting counseling services,” he said. “Rather than students sometimes being split between the two because they’re not sure where exactly to go.”

The SGA is also planning a town hall on substance abuse in the spring to continue conversations about mental health on the campus, Ghosh said. 

“Just by hosting this event, we’re bringing it to the forefront of conversation in some way,” Ghosh said. “It’s really helpful for just creating the culture of care that we’d like to see as we continue moving forward.”

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