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Meet Sophie, founder of University of Bristol's body positivity society

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Second year Bristol English student Sophie Ward is the founder of the university's first body positivity society, and has the aim of tackling self-esteem issues, eating disorders and body dysphoria.

Discussing why she decided to start the Body Positivity Support Group, Sophie says it was “in order to show anyone struggling with their body image and food that they are not alone, and that they can escape the cycle and start loving themselves.”

This want comes from something deeply personal, and Sophie is open to sharing her story.

“Having had a rough time with body image from a very early age, I really know how all-consuming it can be," she says. "However, it wasn’t until I started uni and began restrictive dieting that I realised just how destructive body ideals and diet culture can be.

"For me, uni was the ‘perfect’ environment for all of my concealed body image issues to really culminate. One, I was drinking more alcohol than I ever had, which inevitably led to a drop in mood but gain of weight; two, I was living alone for the first time and completely responsible for what I was eating – although quite clueless; three, to top it all off, uni is an incredibly image-conscious place.

"All of these factors led me to a really dark place, centred on a destructive binge/starve cycle and a crippling, ever-growing loathing of my body.”

For a lot of us, this is a statement that we can understand. Photoshopped and unrealistic images of what we 'should' be are plastered everywhere we look. This is why the recent body positivity movement on social media can be something of a saving grace for those that were are constantly being forced to see our own physical flaws.

Sophie says her own discovery of this movement was a “real saving grace... It helped to open my eyes to how warped and corrupt diet culture is, and the toxicity of body ideals.”

She adds: “If it wasn’t for my discovery of the Body Positivity movement, I would most probably still be stuck in a dark hole of disordered eating and self-loathing – which I am now slowly but surely emerging from.”

The Body Positivity movement still has its flaws. Whilst trying to turn away from the false image of the human body, it can also be blind to all the other body types that can be found. This isn’t something that Sophie wants from her own society: “…I speak from a position of privilege [a white, cis woman who is not ‘overweight’]. I think it is important [to]use this privilege to draw attention to wider issues of those whose voices would perhaps not be heard as loudly as mine.

“Rather than simply focusing on the specific area of eating disorders and body dysmorphia that myself and a multitude of other girls in the group have experience with, it is crucial that this group is not one of privilege or exclusivity, and we must think outside of what we know.

"It is imperative to take notice of and be active in addressing all aspects of society’s policing of bodies – inclusive of all races, genders, abilities, etc.”

What’s important to note is that body positivity isn’t something that just happens. It’s something that slowly builds. Children can be just as affected by self-esteem issues and a lack of body confidence as their parents or their older siblings, which begs the question – is body positivity something that should be addressed earlier on in life?

Sophie thinks so. “I think it is in our younger years that we are really indoctrinated by society’s warped beauty standards," she says, "as it is at this time we really absorb information. I was no older than ten when I started doing a workout routine every evening of my own accord because I realised my tummy was not flat like those I saw in music videos."

Sophie believes that it is diversity that will encourage a more positive view of our bodies, alongside discussions on healthy relationships with food. She says: “If we were shown an array of bodies of all sizes, colours, abilities etc and taught they are all beautiful from early on, I am certain we would have less hang-ups as we get older.”

She also believes that schools should have an involvement, teaching body diversity and self-love as part of the curriculum, particularly advising the use of the Body Image Movement’s documentary, Embrace, to supplement the learning.

Sophie says: “I truly believe that if I had more of an understanding about the corruption of the diet/beauty industry from a young age and was warned about the perils of dieting, I would not have embarked on the same road of extreme dieting and self-loathing.”

It is clear that this Body Positivity Society is one that is well needed, an open space to speak frankly and honestly about how we see ourselves, and Sophie believes that this is something that should be implemented in all universities: “Uni is a massive strain on anyone’s mental health… there’s also a lot of substance abuse, and there’s a massive emphasis on image… eating disorders and body image problems thrive in this environment, and if you’re feeling lonely and down as it is, this can be a particularly toxic mix.

“Knowing there are people around me who struggle with the same problems as I do - even though I thought everyone around me looked like they were coping - has been of the utmost importance to me.”

Sophie believes that her society has been successful so far, “Judging by the hundreds of members the group has gained in such little time and the amount of positive feedback I have got from people telling me how much the group has helped them."

For all those who need a confidence boost, Sophie has some ways to help you, including surrounding yourself with body positive people and using social media – like Instagram and YouTube – to acquaint yourself with images of bodies that you wouldn’t normally see.

“It takes seeing one amazing, confident person whose body doesn’t fit the mould/isn’t dissimilar to your own, to remind you that you don’t have to fit society’s unrealistic standards to be beautiful,” she says.

Find out more about the Body Positivity Support Group (Bristol) here.

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