Kathryn Burnham is the outreach director of the University of Utah group SPEAK (Students Promoting Eating Disorder Awareness & Knowledge), which focuses on eating-disorder research, outreach and awareness. SPEAK, now in its 10th year, hosts Love Your Body Week annually (through March 2, various locations, web.Utah.edu/speak); the week’s free events range from a presentation on size-related stigma to a self-defense course. Burnham, a U senior who’ll be graduating in May as a certified health-education specialist, talked with City Weekly about Love Your Body Week and eating disorders.
Do many students come to you for help with eating disorders?
I don’t have a lot of people who come in to the office. We get a lot more questions when we have a table set up at an event, and people can just come talk to us. I’ve had lots of good conversations. We have a lot of people ask us, “What can I do to help a friend who has an eating disorder?” or, “Does my friend have an eating disorder?” We have pamphlets; we have a resource list. A lot of what we do is getting the message out, and being a resource for people. People can also e-mail us anytime.
What does this year’s theme of “Love Your Body, Love Your Land” mean?
We wanted to have more of a connection with your environment. We’re doing a lot with how foods relate to health, and how to have a healthy relationship with food and also a healthy relationship with your environment—not just nature, but also the way you live, like stress management, nourishing your body with healthy foods. We have events with organic farming, farm-to-table and nurturing your body the natural way.
There are a lot of conflicting messages when it comes to weight—love your body, love your shape, but make sure you go exercise, too. How can you find a balance?
You don’t want to say, “Love your body, eat a gallon of ice cream!” It’s a fine line. Having a body-type acceptance, and realizing that you are going to be good at things that other people aren’t, and you’re also going to have limitations. Really taking genetics into account. A lot of people think that when you work out, you’re automatically going to have this perfect, media-ideal body. But some people have bigger rib cages. Some people are taller, shorter. It’s really constricting when the media says you have to be this perfect size. It’s really loving your body, and having your own concept of beauty, too.
One of SPEAK’s founders is researching the relationship between core resilience, body dissatisfaction and eating behaviors in college females. What is that?
Resilience is the way you come back from a hard time, the way you rebound in a healthy way. If something bad happens, you take it in perspective—“That wasn’t a very good day; tomorrow I’m going to wake up and I’m not going to be mad at myself.” Being resilient plays a big role in the way that people view themselves. We tend to be very hard on ourselves, and set unrealistic goals for ourselves. When you’re resilient, you find things that work for you, and become really connected to your inner self and strength. Finding a support network of people who love you and know you and who can help you find that inner strength is important. With eating disorders, that’s really important—having a strong support system of people who really love you, and aren’t berating you about mistakes that you’ve made.
What’s the “weight bias” in promoting physical activity?
There are a lot of things when it comes to physical activity: How it’s promoted; that you have to be fit and skinny in order to exercise and go to the gym. It’s really intimidating for a lot of people to go to the gym because there are a lot of skinny, super-fit people. She’s helping people realize that you don’t have to have a certain type of body to be fit. You can be fit by doing things that you love—going for a walk after dinner, or going for a swim on Saturday mornings. Just really connecting with your body type, and finding ways to love your body and exercise and take care of your body the way that you move. Everyone’s different; not everyone’s going to be good at running.
What makes people feel bad or good about their body?
A big part of our message is being happy with who you are, and not comparing yourself to the media ideals—really, just rejecting that you have to have this hair color, this skin tone, these eyes, this breast size, whatever, to be a beautiful person. We try to focus on not itemizing your body. The media will say, “Love your lips. Have the perfect lips.” We say, love yourself, love your personality. A lot of people fall into the false conception that losing weight will help them love their body more. Really, it’s internal. You have to love your personality and who you are before you’ll love your appearance, no matter how beautiful you are.
Media messages are so conflicting. They’ll have a magazine cover that says, “Lose 20 Pounds Fast!” and on the other side they’ll have, “Luscious Chocolate Brownie Recipe!” It’s like, “Wait a minute, how can I lose 20 pounds and eat chocolate brownies?” The magazines reap the benefits of insecurities. The magazines say your skin is never good enough, and you have to be skinny. It’s very conflicting and confusing to a lot of people.