On the night of April 10, a chilly Wednesday last week, UGBC’s GLBTQ+ Leadership Council (GLC) and the Council for Students with Disabilities (CSD) came together for an intimate panel in honor of Ability Awareness Week. Campus organizations including UGBC and the Women’s Center promoted this discussion days ahead of time, appropriately titled the “GLC Embody Event.”
Mediated by GLC’s Symone Varnado, MCAS ‘19, principle topics included the word “fat” and its negative connotation, the flawed definition of “health” often held by college students, and the room for improvement at Boston College in terms of dismantling these issues. In addition, Armani King, MCAS ‘20, was invited as a special guest by GLC to talk about the concept of body image at BC. Equally addressed during the talk was the issue of campus accessibility, the intersectionality of students with disabilities who also identify as GLBTQ+, and how these intersections impact their daily lives.
King started off with a hopeful statement.
“For a long time ‘fat’ has been considered a bad word, but I would say there’s a period of reclamation happening right now,” she explained. While acknowledging that she is not an expert, but rather speaks based on her own focused observations and experiences, King went on to define the deceptive traits that people may pair with the word “fat,” including “obesity, laziness, unhealthiness.” She emphasized strongly that not only are these terms far from synonymous, but their association has also tarnished the word “fat” and kept it from becoming the perfectly acceptable adjective she perceives it to be.
"Many people consider BMI to be the standard of what is healthy versus what isn’t healthy; it has been proven many times that that is not the case,” King explained. This concept often gets propagated both on a large scale, by media outlets, and also on a smaller scale, through daily conversation and microaggressions that link the descriptor “fat” to unfavorable qualities. People who are accepting of all sizes but personally harbor a fear of becoming “fat” allow “‘Fatphobia’ [to be] progressed through the student body,” said King.
This discussion led to an unpacking of diet and gym culture on campus, which invited enthusiastic comments from attendees. One topic of conversation was how a crucial element of body positivity is making it possible for everyone to eat as they please and to exercise (or opt not to) at their leisure. The panel discussion emphasized how BC students are responsible for creating this type of environment. From all-too-common remarks about calorie intake and concerns regarding weight gain (often overheard around campus) to the competitive, intimidating atmosphere of the Plex, the Embody Event asked BC students to remain aware of how their actions may be interpreted by diverse members of the student body.
The word “performative” was used repeatedly in addressing college students’ intentions while displaying what they believe to be an image of healthy living. From excessive athletic apparel to vigorous dieting regimens, members of the discussion suggested that students need to be more authentic. Varnado discussed how students could curb inaccurate representations of health by imploring them to “know yourself [sic] and don’t do anything because an outside source [tells you to do so]...You can be healthy at any size...As long as you’re doing [things] for you.”
A huge takeaway from the Embody talk was a pressing call for students to be conscientious and purposeful when addressing body positivity, both in a personal and public setting. Remaining aware of the conversations happening around campus could make all the difference to students impacted by microaggressions, hurtful comments that aggressors are often not aware they are making.
Another critical issue explored at the Embody Event was how students with disabilities navigate the BC campus. Due to a sheer lack of accessible ramps, elevators, and general living accommodations, the population of students with disabilities at BC is not as large as can be found at other universities. This can lead to an unintentional oversight by other students in recognizing their everyday difficulties. Many don’t realize that it can also be an emotional and isolating process for these students to advertise their disabilities. This could be part of the reason CSD’s chair, Sean Dunphy, CSOM ‘21, cites lack of event attendance as one of their club’s greatest struggles.
“We try to foster these conversations, and if people don’t participate, it’s really hard for us to make things easier,” he explained. When asked by Varnado whether he believes GLC events concerning disabilities are an important way to work toward fixing this lack of conversation, he was quick to agree that it would be a big help. “A lot of people who are being marginalized can come together,” Dunphy said.
The word “ally” was heard again and again as panel members and attendees spoke about the obstacles GLBTQ+ students, students struggling with body image, and those with disabilities (or any combination of the three) encounter.
The conversation opened by the Embody Event is one that must be continued. How to start? By making oneself aware of the trials students of different ability face and spreading this knowledge around campus. By removing the toxic and artificial symbols of “health” that pervade college campuses, particularly at BC. By, above all, remembering Varnado’s words: “There is a broad scope of ability levels on BC’s campus.”
Varnado’s opening statement for the panel expressed a goal that all BC students should hold as a priority: “We want people without disabilities to be better allies with those that do.”
To take part in more of these pressing conversations, you can find GLC at their weekly meetings held on Sundays at 5 p.m. and CSD at their sessions on Sundays at 4:30 p.m.