Meghna Balakumar sat down in the South Campus Dining Hall on Sept. 10 and couldn’t believe what she was seeing. 

On her table was a sign that read “Tailgate Without Gaining Weight: don’t let tailgating be your dieting downfall,” followed by a list of healthy substitutions for stadium snacks, such as water and fruit in place of soda and cookies. 

“A diet is how you eat, but when you make it a verb, it’s implying [you are] trying to lose weight, and it becomes about physical appearance and numbers,” the junior business major said. “Usually nutrition advice is disguised. They’re not even being discreet.”

This message hit home for Balakumar, who this summer, along with junior journalism major Alicia McElhaney, founded this university’s chapter of Project HEAL, a nonprofit organization that aims to support people suffering from eating disorders.

Project HEAL was started in 2008 by two teenage girls recovering from eating disorders, and now has more than 20 chapters in the U.S., two in Canada and one in Australia. Aside from promoting positive body image, Project HEAL accepts applications for financial support from those recovering from an eating disorder, and with the help of university funding, Balakumar said they “would love to start being able to say yes to some of those people.”  

McElhaney and Balakumar decided that the gym was a good first step to begin battling unhealthy body image on this university’s campus.  

“The gym is such a breeding ground for eating disorders,” Balakumar said. “Trainers make comments that focus on the aesthetic of exercise. We want to shift the focus to how exercising is healthy for your body.”

McElhaney, a group fitness instructor at the Eppley Recreation Center, said that while she has seen more harmful messages at other campuses’ gyms, the Eppley Recreation Center “definitely has room for improvements” when it comes to promoting healthy body image. 

Balakumar and McElhaney will give a presentation to gym trainers and instructors next month about improving body positivity and avoiding harmful messages, an idea McElhaney got from a University of North Carolina fitness instructor at a fitness expo in spring 2013.  

Campus Recreation Services spokeswoman Kate Maloney said the gym has discouraged trainers from sending harmful messages to students during workout sessions.

“We encourage students to work out to feel better, not to look better,” Maloney said. “We don’t want any group fitness employees using that type of language, because that is not what we are about.”

The women partnered with Changing Health, Attitudes and Actions to Recreate Girls, a campus fitness group with a focus on healthy body image, to run a yoga event on the McKeldin Mall on Sunday, followed by a fundraising bake sale, which McElhaney said demonstrated that students were interested in their cause. 

“We’re hoping this is something people want right now,” McElhaney said.

Dining Services spokesman Bart Hipple said that diners would be more sensitive to potentially harmful messages on tables in the future. Dietetic interns placed the “tailgate” signs, he said.

“Instead of promoting dieting and saying don’t eat this, or even assuming college kids are starting a diet, Dining Services could be promoting taking care of yourself,” McElhaney said. “But treat yourself with dessert when you want to.”