Feb. 16, 2017
By Joanne Norell
Coming of age in a society obsessed with perfect bodies is tough. Ask nearly anyone on a college campus whether they feel the pressure associated with losing weight, gaining muscle or even just avoiding the "Freshman 15," and you'll likely get a resounding, "Yes!"
That pressure can be just as pronounced -- if not more so -- as a collegiate student-athlete because of the performance indicators attached. One's fitness level could be the difference between a first- or second-place finish, making or missing out on a critical rebound or the ability to fly past a defender on a run to the goal.
Many people are able to cope with these pressures in healthy ways. They eat well and exercise regularly, or pursue their performance goals in steady and methodical ways.
But a significant proportion of the population will not.
The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that, in the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men will experience some kind of "clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life."
University of Notre Dame women's soccer senior Kaleigh Olmsted became interested in the research surrounding eating disorders as early as her freshman year, when she began to see these pressures play out in her life and the lives of those around her. She saw friends and teammates from both high school and college struggling, if not with an eating disorder, then with the societal obsession with body image.
"It always sat very uncomfortably with me," Olmsted said. "You start freshman year `high school skinny' and the talk when you get back (home for the summer) is about who gained the `Freshman 15,' or `She's gotten so fat,' or `He's gotten so big.' It just seems to be such a topic of conversation. They don't know what someone's major is, or whether or not they have a boyfriend or girlfriend, but they know whether or not they gained weight. ... It was a combination of those factors and seeing me degrade myself by not having a positive body image. It took me a while to realize that even if you only say it every once in awhile, it builds up and you're looking at yourself in a negative way. It completely alters the way you look at life."
It was the summer after her sophomore year when she decided to do something about it. Olmsted, frustrated not only by the prevalence of eating disorders but also by the pressure to look a certain way, began researching the science behind the disease. A pre-professional studies major with plans to attend medical school, Olmsted wanted to know both where eating disorders began and what was being done to combat them.
"I was in my science classes and wondering exactly where eating disorders come from," Olmsted said. "Is it just a cultural, societal thing or is there some kind of science to it? Is there something that makes someone with different compositions in their brain that makes an eating disorder develop, or is it a genetic predisposition?"
What she found was that eating disorders can come from all of those things. She also found just how underfunded the research surrounding eating disorders is, despite its prevalence in comparison to other mental illnesses. Olmsted also found that people suffering from eating disorders experience the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
For example, Alzheimer's Disease affects 5.1 million people in the United States and is allocated $450 million in research funds by the National Institutes of Health. With six times the number of sufferers, eating disorder research receives just $28 million in NIH funds.
Armed with that information and wanting to combine her interests in science and art, Olmsted -- who is also an Art Studio major -- decided to start a fundraising project called NoBody Is Perfect. The goal, through sales of a self-designed T shirt and general awareness, is to raise money for the Feeding Hope fund for clinical research at the National Eating Disorders Association.
It's been a slow process -- taking advantage of breaks from school and soccer to compile information and plan a course of action -- but one she finally launched in January with a website and crowdfunding page.
"I thought it would be really cool to design a T shirt, but then I thought, `If I'm going to design a T Shirt, I should make this a thing,'" Olmsted said. "`What am I going to put on the T shirt? It needs a name,' and I started reflecting more on it. It became a journal that started in a Word document where I started compiling a ton of research I had seen and reflecting upon how I see eating disorders in my everyday life -- not just from a statistical standpoint. Then I thought maybe I should put this on a website and put the T shirt up there. Maybe people will be interested in it and maybe it will go somewhere.
"I like knowing I have some sort of control over it," Olmsted said when asked why she decided to create her own campaign. "So it was about combining a little creativity with a cause I was trying to raise funds for."
She hopes to sell 300 T Shirts, bearing the slogans "NoBody Is Perfect," and "I Am ___ Enough," alongside a ribbon containing positive adjectives such as "Pretty," "Strong," "Confident," and "Powerful." The design is rendered in periwinkle as the national awareness color for eating disorders and also features a periwinkle shamrock. Olmsted, who is also on the Student-Athlete Advisory Council, plans to sell the shirts through her connections and social media, as well as selling them at athletics events.
"I'm not contending that having a positive body image is going to thwart getting an eating disorder," Olmsted said of her T shirt design, "but I'm saying that having a negative body image can definitely contribute to the development of eating disorders. ... But it's not just about eating disorders; it's also about having a better outlook on your life.
"Hopefully it sparks interest around campus. I also have a couple of friends who go to Texas A&M, Texas and Marquette who were interested in helping out, so they brought it back to their teams and talked about it, so hopefully we get some more donations or T shirt sales through that."
Though Olmsted doesn't expect NoBody Is Perfect to become an ongoing project, the cause is one she would like to see will live on beyond the time she devotes to the fundraiser.
"My goal right now is to sell all 300 T shirts, and if I can do that it will raise about $6,000 or so," Olmsted said. "Right now this is just a one-time project, but if it sparked enough interest, it would be a really cool thing to maybe even work with some of my teammates and come up with a design that not only I created. If anyone on my team is interested in carrying this over, I would be ecstatic about one of them taking this on with their own ideas."
To learn more about NoBody Is Perfect, click here.
-- ND --
Joanne Norell, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2014 and coordinates communications efforts for the Notre Dame women's soccer, men's tennis, women's tennis and fencing programs. Norell is a 2011 graduate of Purdue University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in mass communication, and earned her master's degree in sports industry management from Georgetown University in 2013.