The National Eating Disorders Association estimates 30 million Americans, 20 million women and 10 million men, will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Of those individuals, only 10 percent receive treatment.
Organizing to Make a Difference
Justine Reel, who is an associate professor in health promotion and education, came to the University of Utah in 2001. As she familiarized herself with the school, she couldn’t help but notice how students would interact
with their food. In 2002, Reel and four students researching destructive eating habits formed the group Students Promoting Eating disorder Awareness and Knowledge (SPEAK).
“SPEAK’s mission is to promote eating disorder awareness and a healthy relationship with food, exercise and self,” Reel told U News in a 2011 article.
Eating disorders do not discriminate, a video produced by SPEAK for Love Your Body Week 2015 explained. People of every age, sex, class and location are vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. Of all mental illnesses, eating disorders have some of the highest mortality rates, alongside depression.
“As a nation, we have a problem with body image,” said Christina Bargelt, the president of SPEAK. “From mass media to mean girls, though this is not just a female problem by any means, there is pressure everywhere to conform. There are reports of children 10 and younger who feel they need to lose weight in this country, and that’s outrageous. Additionally, I think obesity, as a result of binge eating disorder, is a lot more prevalent than we think in the United States.”
SPEAK is an organization working to reduce eating disorders, which many contend have reached the point of being a national health crisis. SPEAK hopes to prevent people from becoming victims of these illnesses by promoting self-esteem, positive body images
and healthy eating habits through educating, developing prevention strategies, providing resources for those suffering from these diseases and performing research.
“At SPEAK, we want everyone to love their own skin, and it’s okay if you’re not there yet,” Bargelt said. “We want to help you get there. We also want
to help you identify warning signs in loved ones and give you the tools and resources to help someone in need.”
Each year the group has approximately 20 members. Joining the organization is now fee-free to increase accessibility.
“I thought it can be intimidating enough to contact us for some people who are working through a disorder without a fee,” Bargelt said.
Members of SPEAK have the opportunity to conduct research, facilitate and participate in group activities and take part in outreach programs.
“Sometimes SPEAK will table at middle school or high school fairs because it is so important to reach that susceptible age demographic,” Bargelt said.
According to research conducted by Diane Carlson Jones, a professor emerita of educational psychology at the University of Washington, and Linda Smolak, a professor emerita of psychology at Kenyon College, 40 to 60 percent of elementary school-aged girls are concerned they will become fat.
SPEAK also hosts events both to inform and support students at the U. The group organizes skill-building workshops and facilitates panel discussions.
An annual project for the team is Love Your Body Week, which Bargelt said is the event she is focusing on this year. This spring, the week falls between Feb. 26 and March 4, which coincides with National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. During the week, SPEAK will advocate for everyone to celebrate their bodies, no matter the shape or size. Overcoming negative body images and enforcing positivity is SPEAK’s intent.
Bargelt decided to join SPEAK after hearing Esther Okang speak at the U’s extended orientation, SWOOP Camp, which provides information on how to get involved in leadership opportunities on campus.
“I really connected with the cause because I have personally struggled with eating disorders for all of my teen and young adult years,” Bargelt said. “I caught up with her after the presentation to give her my information and I’ve been on board ever since.”
When Bargelt took on the role of president, Esther gave her a slip of paper that read, “Hi body. You are going to carry me through this day. Because of you, I can dance, I can see, I can run, I can sing, I can think. With your help, I can show the world who I am today. I will take really good care of you because you are my only body. And as I love you and respect you, you’ll take good care of me. We are allies; you stand up for me and I stand up for you, no matter what anyone else says. We’ll be friends through thick and thin. We’re friends for life.”
Both Okang and Bargelt keep the note on small pieces of paper next to their beds as a daily reminder.
“At minimum, most people have a disordered relationship with food,” Bargelt said. “That doesn’t mean you have an eating disorder, but you might have certain eating rituals that are unhealthy or feelings about food that are not clinically normal. Mindfulness about eating habits can be a great way to address those disordered eating habits before they turn into a full-blown eating disorder.”
No one needs to ght an eating disorder alone, and SPEAK isn’t the only group on campus that targets these unhealthy behaviors. Various resources on campus, such as Student Health Services, the Counseling Center and the Women’s Resource Center, are available to support students suffering from eating disorders. Off campus, SPEAK has partnered with the Avalon Hills Residential Treatment Center, Center for Change and Remuda Ranch. All products and services provided by SPEAK are free as a service to the community.
“We have wonderful relationships with eating disorder healthcare professionals all over the Salt Lake area, in addition to all over the U.S.,” Bargelt said.
To encourage body positivity, SPEAK has an unattributed poem about self-love on its website. firstname.lastname@example.org