Stigmas attached to eating disorders and body image in society are prevalent and undeniable — especially in college settings. Martina Desire’e Maya-Callen, a 20-year-old student at Salisbury University, is working to change that.
Last week, the sculpture major braved the snow while putting on a live performance art piece at her Maryland college in which she stood outside in a nude body suit. She covered the suit with phrases and words that she has previously thought about her body, and allowed people to write their own remarks alongside her words.
“I was trying to figure out for me what would be impactful and what avenue would mean the most to me,” Maya-Callen told Yahoo Beauty about the performance. “With the body positivity community that I’m now in — a lot of it is being in your own body and your own skin and loving who you are to the fullest — that is through representing your body. I decided that I wanted to incorporate my body in the most vulnerable component that I could be which was a nude bodysuit.”
As this was her first performance art piece, Maya-Callen was incredibly nervous before the project. “I set up my sculpture, I stood up in public, I took off my clothes and started to write in black words — negative thoughts I’ve felt about myself. Not even just negative thoughts, but the negative connotations that go with those words.”
Allowing people to write on her bodysuit in periwinkle — the color of eating disorder awareness — Maya-Callen received mixed feedback from people who walked by. She shared that while some chose to simply not acknowledge her, many stopped to check out her project.
“Comments that people wrote on me were different. I had somebody write, ‘You’re beautiful. You’re intelligent,’” she shared. “Other people that didn’t feel comfortable writing on my body personally wrote on the back of the sign that I was holding that I had real courage. When a man came over and wrote, ‘You have real courage’ on the back of my sign, I almost broke down in tears.”
For the project, she stood next to a large sculpture of a door she made, which was intended to illustrate “The Hidden Secret of Eating Disorders.” The door was framed with white board, which she also invited passersby to write on.
“When you bring up the topic, people don’t necessarily know what eating disorders are or what that really means. I wanted to give people an understanding of what it’s like to have negative body image or eating disorders. I came up with the idea of making an installation where the inside represented what it’s like to have that type of emotion,” she said about her sculpture. “I wanted to incorporate this idea of self-love and overcoming and building a community that not only helps those with eating disorders, but also loves their body. I wanted it to be enclosed in a closet that people could write on.”
Maya-Callen shared that she was completely open to any type of feedback from the public and chose the location because she wanted to get people’s attention through her project.
“My whole idea for the sculpture was that I wanted it to be in a public place so if people chose not to interact or chose not to understand or really involve themselves, then they were completely ignoring it,” she said. “If they just walked by, they were ignoring the topic of eating disorders, of self-hatred, and of body positivity. That’s why I wanted to impede on a location.”
The college student believes the vulnerability attached to the project is what gave it such impact. “I get a lot of my inspiration for my artwork from stuff that I’m personally going through, so at this point in my life this is huge to me and the idea of my personal growth and body acceptance. Not even just body acceptance, but also self-love. I wanted to spread that message,” she said.
Maya-Callen said she also was motivated to create the piece because of what she believes is a lack of awareness about eating disorders. “There’s so many people saying eating disorders don’t exist and that was a primary component for doing this. People need to understand that this is a real thing. This is a real stigma that’s in our society.”
She has also faced hateful comments regarding her body that incited her to make the statement. “So many people are commenting overeating is an eating problem, and people don’t recognize this is my body now. This is my body through self-love and through self-acceptance. This is me not trying to strive for the standard of beauty that makes me feel like I’m not good enough. This is me at my happiest, and people don’t understand how I could potentially be happy in my body.”
Maya-Callen doesn’t take those comments to heart, and opts for a mature perspective to deal with those remarks. “Everyone can feel the way that they want to and think the things that they do, but I feel like the message I wanted to spread is actually coming across, and that’s what means the most to me,” she shared.
Most of the feedback she received after the performance was overwhelmingly positive.
“I have been brought to tears with the amount of support, the amount of love, and the personal stories I have received,” she said. “I’m completely in awe of the response. When I was doing the piece, I was overwhelmed with gratitude and love. After, I had no idea what it would come to.”
After Maya-Callen drew more 25,000 likes on one of her photos from the project, women and men have reached out to her to share how important her statement was.
“I have probably had over a hundred messages from people telling me their personal stories, how there is such a stigma, and how this helped them in their personal growth and self-acceptance. It’s just been so beautiful to me the messages that these women — and even men — have sent me about this topic,” she said.
Maya-Callen received a Fulton Student Grant from her university that will allow her to show the project again. Despite the massive reach of the project, the college student’s message and intention was simple. “If just one person got something out of it, it would mean the world to me,” she said.
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