8 Important Lessons We Learned As Campus Activists
By Jane Skinner and Kaitlyn Oberg--For those who have struggled with an eating disorder or body image concerns, campus activism can be a rewarding way to create change on a “large-scale” basis. We’ve both had the privilege and pleasure of helping to organize awareness-raising events on our college campuses—and we’ve learned some really eye-opening lessons firsthand. Here are the eight most important ones:
1. Don’t take it personally.
Jane Skinner: “Ugh, thank you, finally a mirror that isn’t covered,” says one girl to another, who responds, “Yes, finally, I can’t wait for this day to be over.” Now comes the awkward part: there was a paper covering that mirror.
My dedicated volunteers and I spent hours covering all of the mirrors in the academic buildings on my campus for Mirrorless Monday. As I walked into the bathroom to take down the paper on Monday night, I overheard this conversation. Of course, as I took down the small strands of tape that were left over from a random person ripping off my paper, the girls stopped talking and realized what they’d done. I silently cleaned up the mess and moved to the next bathroom.
I teared up, thinking about what people with eating disorders have been through and how inconsiderate their remarks were. Then I stopped and realized: don’t take it personally. This project was worth it! Even if our efforts only reached one person, comments from people who missed having a mirror for the day cannot and will not stop me or my activism on campus.
2. Be aware of your triggers.
Kaitlyn Oberg: It’s easy to be passionate about work with which you have a personal connection, but that also means that others’ struggles can hit home a little too hard if you’re not well prepared. For those who have recovered, talking with those who are still struggling can be triggering. It is so incredibly important to be aware of these triggers and have a solid support system to turn to as needed.
3. Remember: you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Jane Skinner: Being an advocate or volunteer for any cause, you must remember self-care! I felt stressed out, and like I should spend hours doing work, but some quality time with friends was just what the doctor ordered. After taking a break, I could go back to homework and planning with a fresh mind, and I found that I was more productive!
4. Your events won’t always be the most popular on campus.
Kaitlyn Oberg: Just like Dr. Seuss warns in Oh The Places You’ll Go,“bang-ups and hang-ups can happen to you, too.” The biggest thing I have learned from helping to organize events is that there is no way to predict how popular they will be—and that can be frustrating. Eating disorders are often shrouded in secrecy, which means that those who are suffering may not be incredibly willing to step forward and participate in an event that brings awareness to said disorder. In addition, being a part of a large university means that events can get lost in the shuffle—there is a certain art to generating interest in your event or cause, and that can be very difficult to gauge when you are new to the scene.
5. You’ll get by with a little help from your friends!
Jane Skinner: I’m a perfectionist and I want everything done my way, so I tend to do it myself and refuse to ask for help. This is wrong—you cannot do it alone. Whatever project you are working on or whichever campus event you are planning, you cannot do it alone. You’ll be surprised when you ask for help because the people who care about you will be there AND they will do it just the way you ask them to. They will step up and spend countless hours wandering around with you until your project is complete. I learned that those who care will come no matter how busy they are or how many tests they have this week—even if the only connection to the cause they have is you. I have the best friends and loved ones, and if you ask for help, your friends will show you that they love you too.
6. Hard work pays off.
Jane Skinner: As part of my activism, I set up a display in the lobby of my library asking students to write a sticky note about why they are “Proud2Bme.” As I read through the new notes each day, most are funny and say things like, “because I live each day like Kanye,” but there are a few that tell me I’ve reached someone who needed it. Maybe those funny notes are people who needed that reminder, and this is their way of handling it, but the notes that stood out to me included the NEDA symbol or “I’m an ED survivor.” I put hours into planning my event and the biggest payoff was spotting that NEDA symbol while walking into the library. I know that all of my time and effort was worth it because I reached someone who needed it.
7. You may have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Kaitlyn Oberg: We as a society aren’t talking about EDs or the issues that surround them—and being the only person to talk about them, especially in a college community, can be really intimidating. Advocacy isn’t easy, but…
8. …it is SO worth it.
Jane Skinner: The few lucky people who are not familiar with eating disorders or think they do not know anyone with an eating disorder may say that Mirrorless Monday was a waste, it was annoying to have the mirrors covered or it was bad for the environment. Those people are wrong. My activism on campus reaffirmed what I already believed: activism matters and activism surrounding eating disorders, which only thrive in secrecy, matters. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, they do not discriminate and they are terrible diseases. Advocacy and awareness for eating disorders is so important and anyone who is suffering should know they have love and support from all of us.
Kaitlyn Oberg: For every shred of self-doubt, fear and hesitation I have had when it comes to being a campus advocate, seeing my work positively impact others has inspired me to keep going. Not only have I grown on personal and professional levels, but those I have connected with through advocacy have also helped me to grow on a level that I did not think I would ever reach! Contributing to a culture that helps to uncover and prevent eating disorders is such a unique position to be in, and it has been beneficial both to my college campus and to me.
Advocacy can be daunting to start, but my best recommendation is to begin from the bottom. Where are you needed? Where are the holes in your campus that you think could use filling in? By starting small, you can gain the confidence and skills to become an amazing advocate for those on your campus.
To paraphrase the author Harvey Mackay, “Nobody said [it] would be easy—they just said it would likely be worth it,” and for those you help, it 100% is worth it.