Should the faculty and staff of a women’s college be losing weight for cash?

Last fall, a wealthy, weight-obsessed alumna of Stephens College, a women’s college in Missouri, dangled a $1 million donation in front of the cash-strapped college with one condition:  the staff had to collectively lose at least 250 pounds by January 1.  In addition, the donor will kick in an additional $100,000 if the college’s president, Dianne Lynch, loses 25 pounds herself.  Here’s a link to her photograph.  Does she look to you like she needs to lose 25 pounds?

I worked for a women’s college for a few years when I still lived in Ohio.  It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.  Women’s colleges are special places.  They produce a disproportionately high number of female leaders.  This isn’t surprising, considering every leadership position on campus goes to a female student– they are the captains of every sports team, the presidents of every club,  the valedictorians and salutatorians of every graduating class, and they constitute the entire membership of the student government.

Women’s colleges are one of the few places you can go that seem to truly value women for the content of their brains and their characters, not for the way they look.  Since there are no male students around, the pressure to have perfect hair, makeup, and clothes in order to look pretty for the menfolk is largely absent.  I remember being thrilled to see the students roaming the halls in clothes that were casual but modest, with hair that was combed but not carefully coiffed, and faces largely devoid of makeup.  It was about the learning there.  Not about the competition to see who is the thinnest and the prettiest.

Then the college went coed, largely for budgetary reasons, and it nearly broke my heart.  The very next semester, even with relatively few male students on campus, the behavior and appearance of the women noticeably changed.  They began dressing differently– less for comfort, more for display, especially the display of lots of skin.  I heard stories of women putting on prom dresses just to go visit the men’s dorm, in some cases to do their laundry for them.  The makeup came back.  The hair came back.  In short, the emphasis on women’s bodies and physical appearance came back, and how.  (Also, the very first semester we had men living on campus they set fire to their own dorm, but that’s a story for another time.)

Despite the benefits of attending a women’s college, a campus devoid of men is a very hard sell for teenage girls today.  Keeping enrollments up is a challenge, and aside from an elite few, women’s colleges are all under enormous pressure to raise money any way they can.  When you have a chance to bring in a cool million, it’s hard to say no.

These were the things on my mind when I first read the story about Stephens College last fall.  Now there’s an update:  The staff has lost just over 300 pounds total, and the president is more than halfway to her individual goal of 25 pounds.  Looks like Stephens is going to get the money.  But does this monetary end justify the means?

Is this donor really health-obsessed, or just weight-obsessed?

The evidence points to the latter.  The thing of which she seems to be most proud is that, at age 86, she weighs exactly the same number of pounds she did when she got married.  Not that her blood pressure or cholesterol or endurance are the same, but that the size of her body is the same– a trim 117 pounds.  (Incidentally, it tells me a lot that the donor shared her weight with the president, the president shared it with the press, and virtually every article and blog post I read on this story specifically mentions it.  Unless she’s really, REALLY short, at 117 she has got to be very thin, and it’s obvious that we all seem to find that fact to be very important to the story.)

Does she really want the staff at Stephens to be healthier, or just thinner?  Again, the evidence points to the latter.  The metric she chose was not improved health outcomes such as better blood pressure, lower cholesterol, a better resting heart rate, healthier blood glucose levels, or anything else.  It also wasn’t an easily measurable exercise goal, such as total miles walked (easily measured with personal pedometers), total hours logged at the gym, participation in fitness classes, nutritional counseling, etc.  Nope, just pounds lost.  As far as I can tell, there was no instruction on how this was to be accomplished, no way to monitor how it was being accomplished, no concern for whether weight loss was indicated or even prudent for each individual participant, and no attention paid to whether the participants would be able to keep the weight off in the long term.  We know that these types of contests tend to encourage unhealthy weight-loss strategies.  We also know that virtually all dieting leads to regain of the weight and that weight cycling itself is dangerous– maybe moreso than just remaining fat (for those who were fat to begin with).  As far as I can tell, these issues were completely ignored for the Stephens contest: by the donor, by the president, by the participants, and by virtually every member of the media, mainstream or otherwise.

Now that the weight has been lost, we know who did it, and how it was done.  Photographs and videos show that even people already well below the upper bound of what is considered to be a “healthy weight” attempted to lose weight to earn the money for their employer.  The president herself appears to have been at a healthy weight before the competition even started, and it’s not clear at all that a weight loss goal of 25 pounds was appropriate or even safe in her case.  If she consulted her doctor before she began her diet, she hasn’t mentioned that to the press.

Did Stephens really want its staff to get healthier, or did they really just want the cash?

Again, the evidence indicates the latter.  It’s pretty clear what motivated Stephens to take on the challenge.  At the outset, Lynch said this about the challenge:  “This is a good thing.  If we do this, we’re $500,000 ahead of our budget goals.”  In fact, the part about adding an additional $100K if she lost 25 pounds was apparently her idea.  That’s disappointing coming from a woman in a leadership position with multiple degrees in feminist history.

Since then, the college has tried very hard to frame the contest for the press in terms of getting healthier.  But if they really wanted to get healthier, they could have done so at any time.  For the contest– but not at any time prior to it– Lynch paid staff to spend an hour a day at the gym.  For the contest– but not at any time prior to it– nutritional counseling and healthy snacks were provided for the staff.  Lynch normally keeps a snack jar in her office for visitors.  For the contest, she put fruit in the jar.  Prior to the contest, there was candy in it.

How Writers Covered the Story

Not surprisingly, the Stephens story has been covered very differently by different writers, with the mainstream media largely choosing the lazier “weight loss automatically and universally signifies better health and is therefore always an unqualified good” view and bloggers thinking a bit more critically.  Very few mainstream publications, including the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education, questioned the wisdom of academics allowing themselves to be bribed into losing weight on a deadline, however they manage to do so, whether they need it or not.  Elizabeth Kissling, a blogger for Ms. Magazine, wr0te the very best piece I’ve seen on the Stephens story.  I know most of you don’t click on the links in my posts, so I’m telling you now, stop reading this post, click on this link to Kissling’s piece, and go read it.  It’s way better than anything I’m going to write.

Here’s some other thoughtful coverage on the story:

The Sustainable Food blog at Change.org took Stephens and the donor to task not only for an ill-conceived project that is not supported by research, but also for not spending the money more wisely on things more likely to actually make a lasting impact.  Here’s a bit of what change.org blogger Tara Lohan had to say:

[W]eight-loss challenges like this one address Americans’ growing waistlines in the wrong way. Obesity is such an epidemic because of a host of complex, interrelated issues like our dysfunctional food system, poor health care, food deserts, junk food marketing, an increasingly sedentary culture — the list goes on and on.

So while it’s great to see people become more fit, the idea that shedding pounds for a one-time goal (of money!) would help achieve that seems ludicrous. What this competition — and all weight-loss competitions, for that matter —  is more likely to do is make the staff feel really bad about their bodies. Plus, singling out the president is just downright insulting. Also, this is a staff-wide endeavor, which means that anyone can lose the weight, even people who really shouldn’t.

At Care2, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux puts it this way (there are some great comments under the post, too, especially noting the poor message the contest sends to students by focusing on pounds rather than true measures of health):

Lynch seems to have bravely put on her game face in an attempt to snag the cash, saying, that the donation is “unique” because it’s not about creating a scholarship or new program (you know, those silly programs that help the students) – no, it’s about “investing in the people who work at this college.”

Investing in them?  Or making them feel inadequate and body-conscious?  The donor in question seems to have no shortage of self-righteousness; “fit and fond of organic food,” she wants to generously use her wealth to incentivize weight loss among America’s obese population.  But there also seems to be a heavy dose of body image issues – according to Lynch, the donor, at 87, “weighs exactly what she did when she married her husband—117 pounds. It’s a point of pride for her that she has maintained her youthful physique.”

In her Size Matters blog at Bitch Magazine online, Tasha Fierce wrote a great piece about the relationship between this type of contest and the detrimental effects of body shaming.  Here’s a quote on point:

As if size discrimination wasn’t enough to deal with, many workplaces are instituting weight loss incentive programs, which further marginalizes fat employees. Incentive programs that include rewards for departments or teams that lose the most weight create a hostile atmosphere in which fat people are shamed for not being able to lose significant amounts of weight. For example, an alumna of Stephens College in Missouri recently pledged to donate $1 million to the college if the staff loses a collective 250 pounds by January 1, 2011. This puts undue pressure on fat staff members who may or may not be able to lose enough weight to contribute “their part” of the collective 250 lbs.

In response to this, folks may point out that many of the follow-up stories include very positive comments from participants on the staff and no reports of shaming.  To those folks, I would say this:  Trust me, one of the only things western society likes about the fat people they shame is their silence.  If there’s somebody at Stephens who spent her whole life yo-yo dieting and is now intractably fat as a result of a lifetime of disordered eating, I guarantee you two things:  First, that this contest triggered feelings she has worked very hard to overcome, and second, that shes suffered in silence through the whole contest and didn’t say one damn word about it to anybody.

Been there, done that.  One day I’ll write a post about the time my coworkers wanted to gather enough participants to form an on-site Weight Watchers group, so they had a membership drive that consisted mostly of fat-shaming emails and fliers combined with in-person hard sells.  If you didn’t participate, not only were you failing to make a “healthy choice” for yourself, but you were also letting down your coworkers by depriving them of the minimum number of participants they needed to lure a WW counselor to their worksite.

But I digress.  Shameless Mag has this to say about the Stephens contest:

Coerced weight loss for money? Really?

Manipulative?

Unfair?

Promoting a healthier lifestyle? Why tie it to weight loss and not to activity levels or fruit and veggie consumption, then?

A commenter under the post said this:

Wow! Young women can barely escape being bombarded by unrealistic/harmful/dangerous(!) beauty ideals outside of the classroom, but now their whole academic experience could be tainted by the same messages.

Elena at Women’s Glib said this about the contest:

Why isn’t this anonymous donor pledging one million dollars if the school gets most of their food from within a 50 mile radius? Or if the school creates a program promoting physical activity? Also, if I ever got to meet President Lynch, I think I’d talk to her about many things other than whether or not she should lose weight. Evidently, it’s not enough that Lynch has many academic achievements, seems to be very well-loved by the student body (she became president after I left, and actually sent me a very nice email), or writes a very cool blog.  She evidently also has to fit an anonymous donor’s (who evidently weighs 117 pounds) idea of what is an acceptable weight [emphasis mine].

The Columbia Tribune ran the story, and a commenter posted this beneath it:

I’m not going to lie, I’d quit if I worked there. The consequences of a program like this are potentially disastrous. While the intentions are good and I agree with the statement that many people in America have very unhealthy lifestyles this is absolutely not the way to motivate people to change.

Programs like this lead to disordered eating. If the program is optional those women who do not participate are automatically stigmatized. Those that are visibly overweight will feel pressure to participate because they have the potential to lose the most pounds…people with (probably) already poor body image and self esteem will be placed in a situation where they are put on display…even if they do not participate this will be the case. Their coworkers, students, the community (this was published in the columbia daily tribune and the community benefits from having a successful university in their town) will wonder why they have opted out. They are arbitrarily using pounds as a health indicator and financially incentivizing body shaming. There has GOT to be more creative things they can do to promote healthy living on campus for ALL (students, faculty and staff) than create a 4 month rat race to some arbitrary 250 lb mark all of which, statistically speaking, will be gained back in the next year.

Columnist Amanda Woytus at the Columbia Missourian had this to say:

Students at the women’s college won’t participate, but some employees hope it will set a good example.

By a good example, I’m sure they meant inspiring students to live healthier lives, but the challenge isn’t a wellness challenge. It’s a weight-loss challenge [emphasis mine], evidenced by the goal’s measurement being pounds lost.

Healthiness is related to weight. Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and certain types of cancer and gynecological problems are all linked to obesity. But you can also be thin and binge drink, chain smoke and eat nothing but Yogoluv’s frozen yogurt.

Losing 1 1/2 pounds, though it might start a pattern of healthier living, isn’t going to significantly improve an individual’s health. I don’t see the point. Maybe, as Lynch volunteered, the point is to put the school ahead of its budget goal.

Daniel Luzer, who writes for the College Guide blog at the Washington Examiner, points out that this “may well be the first time a college president managed to leverage a donation out of [a] conversation in which an alumnus basically just indicated that she was too fat.”  He’s one of the few male authors I’ve seen who questioned the wisdom and appropriateness of Stephens’ contest.

Time Magazine and  A few writers point out that the Stephens weight loss challenge (note nobody ever called it the Stephens Get Healthier Challenge) happened during the same time period as another initiative happening on college campuses last fall– the No Fat Talk Week.  Recognizing the damage done by constantly commenting on the sizes of women’s bodies and using the word “fat” as a weapon, women leaders developed No Fat Talk Week to begin to counteract the problem.  Apparently, Stephens didn’t get the memo.

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2 Responses to “Should the faculty and staff of a women’s college be losing weight for cash?”

  1. Fitegic Planners Says:

    I will preface my comment by saying that I am essentially conflicted when it comes to today’s emphasis on “weight loss challenges” in general. For instance, while a show such as “The Biggest Loser” may serve to give hope to people – especially the morbidly obese – I am uncomfortable with the methodology.

    Challenges usually are time-based, and quite often unrealistically so. Losing weight quickly sets us up for failure when it comes to sustaining a healthy weight. In particular, as fas as Longest Loser is concerned, outside of a “where are they now?” segment, the producers offer no long-term healthy weight maintenance program for participants. Considering that the weight has been lost in such a short period of time and under conditions that don’t represent “real life”, these participants are particularly in need of such education.

    As far as the challenge you describe in your post I am essentially in agreement. Furthermore, I see it as a huge opportunity lost. The challenge received so much press and, if it had been appropriately structured to emphasize health benefit and components of incorporating healthy lifestyle habits into women’s lives, could have brought valuable information and motivation to millions.

    I lost 100 pounds 30 years ago – have I stayed at the same weight? NO. A healthy weight is a RANGE (most often based on BMI). By definition a healthy weight is not a particular number where one “looks good” – it is a weight that supports good health status.

  2. Elena Says:

    Hi. Thanks to linking to my story! Here’s a little more of a back story on Stephens (I was a student there for a yar and a half).

    There are a lot of strong leaders on campus, but there is still a lot of studens who do put a lot of effort into their appearance/outfits. This is partially because Stephens does have a popular fashion program, and has other programs where dressing nicely is required (when theatre majors have big auditions, they dress to the nines).

    There are male students at Stephens as well: The theatre and dance departments recruit about 5 men (in each dept) each year.

    And yes, this weight loss thing is pretty much for financial reasons only: the school is broke, and nearly closed due to financial reasons. One of teh reasons why I left was because I couldn’t see where my $25K a year was going–the campus has a lot of infrastructural issues that need to be addressed.

    Ironically, Stephens does not allow students to live off-campus, due to “inclement weather” concerns, and like most colleges, on campus housing is more expensive than living off campus.

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