Graduate students play a vital role in research that impacts people’s lives, gaining hands-on experience as they prepare for their careers. At the University of Missouri, two graduate students are playing an instrumental role in the creation of a new interdisciplinary research center that will improve the health and well-being of people all around the world – the Center for Body Image Research and Policy in the College of Human Environmental Sciences.

This is a picture of Virginia Ramseyer Winter and Michaella Ward presenting at a conference in St. Louis.

Virginia Ramseyer Winter, director of the MU Center for Body Image Research and Policy, and Michaella Ward, a graduate student, presented together the effects of body image on sexual behaviors and the importance of including body image in sex education at a conference in St. Louis.

Mackenzie Cook, a doctoral student in the School of Social Work, and Michaella Ward, a master’s student studying social work and public health, work with Virginia Ramseyer Winter, a nationally recognized body image expert and assistant professor of social work, to launch the Center for Body Image Research and Policy. The new interdisciplinary research center aims to improve body image, health and wellness for individuals, families, and communities.

Picture of Mackezie Cook

Mackenzie Cook, a doctoral student in the School of Social Work, feels empowered in getting the new body image center up and running.

“It’s so exciting to be at the ground floor of creating such an important center,” Cook said. “Dr. Ramseyer Winter has empowered us as graduate students to play important roles in getting the center up and running.”

Cook and Ward are working with Ramseyer Winter and Antoinette Landor, the center’s associate director, to develop the website and identify community partners and other scholars for collaboration. Landor is an assistant professor of human development and family science and a leading scholar on colorism and skin tone—a form of body image.

The students also have a crucial role in research.

“In the center, we aren’t just student interns,” Ward said. “We are working with the researchers to develop curricula for community partners and initiating research projects.”

Both students came to Mizzou because of their interest in the intersections between policy and health care. When Ramseyer Winter and Landor began putting the center together, they knew they wanted it to be a place where students could gain hands-on research experience.

“Both Mackenzie and Michaella understand how body image intersects with multiple aspects of health,” Ramseyer Winter said. “Mackenzie chose Mizzou to be part of our research and to pursue her own related interests. When Michaella was a student in my class I immediately saw her potential. I am so excited to have them as part of the center’s beginning.”

The graduate students are particularly interested in how body image plays a role in sexual health and sex education. Cook, who graduated high school in West Plains, Missouri, hopes to do research on improving health education in rural communities. Similarly, Ward hopes to use her personal experience to help others have positive body image.

Picture of Michaella Ward

Michaella Ward, a master’s student studying social work and public health, is gaining hands-on research experience through the center.

“It’s very personal to me,” Ward said. “Growing up in Louisiana, there were things I didn’t know about body image and how it connected to sexual, mental and physical health. When I started to make those connections in my studies it was like a lightbulb went off.”

Upcoming work from the center include developing interventions for foster parents and young adult women, research studies that aim to better understand how body image relates to health among understudied populations, such as mid-life adults, youth in foster care, and transgender youth as well as understanding the role of skin tone on intimate relationships and health among African-American and white college students.

Both students are excited to bring folks together and to obtain funding for research that will benefit so many people, as body image is an issue that affects many.

“The work we are doing will help others, as body images affects people of all ages and genders,” Cook said. “When people have body positivity they can live healthier lives.”