My friend Alison and I are strong, athletic women. But our hips are fuller than those of Calvin Klein models and our chests smaller than "Baywatch" actresses might flaunt. Some days, we need to remind each other that stomachs are supposed to take up space, and cellulite belongs in certain places.
So we went to a body image workshop sponsored by our college's health services. Once a week for three weeks, we sat on sofas with five other women and talked about how to feel good about our unique physiques. Most of us had never had an eating disorder, but were less than thrilled with our round behinds or jiggling thighs. We learned to love those jiggles, but not through studying charts or hearing first-person accounts on the dangers of eating disorders. Instead, body acceptance was fostered through meditation, poetry, and writing exercises.
According to statistics compiled by Eating Disorders Awareness & Prevention, Inc., a Seattle-based nonprofit organization, more than 5 million women and 1 million men face eating disorders in this country. This has prompted some schools to take an artistic approach to promoting a healthy body image.
Georgetown, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland, for instance, have tapped into the talent of the A.C.T. Out Ensemble, a group founded in 1996. Based in Indianapolis, these professional actors travel to high schools and universities to spur discussion on eating disorders, as well as homophobia, AIDS, and violence. Jessica Weiner, the group's founder, directs and writes many of the performances. For a scene on eating disorders, she wrote, "I waited for you, Dad. My whole life I have waited for your acknowledgment. . . . So I stopped eating. I'd spit out food and you wouldn't notice."
After a performance at the University of Virginia last year, football players told Weiner they faced issues similar to those portrayed by the female actors. "For men, there's a lot of shame in admitting you have a problem," she said. "If a guy says that he threw up, he feels he's going to be called a sissy."
After the football players talked to her, Weiner added a "Guy Talk" scene to her play. Three male actors talk about wanting to be bigger and stronger, and confess to obsessively eating Big Macs and powdered protein shakes.
Margaret Stetz, associate professor of English and Women's Studies at Georgetown, leads a discussion for freshmen on Lucy Grealy's "Autobiography of a Face," the story of a woman going through life with a facial deformity. "Not many students have had cancer or facial deformities, but they understand the preoccupation with always feeling like your face is on view and being judged by appearance," says Stetz.
Stetz, who has struggled with an eating disorder, believes body image is "a good thing to talk about, especially at the beginning [of college]. Students are starting new lives and I wanted them to have a place to talk about these issues."
She said that her discussion group draws primarily women, most of whom have struggled with eating disorders. Body image problems "can be very distracting from their academic careers," says Stetz.
In "SomeBody to Love" (Third Side, 1992, $10.95), author Leslea Newman suggests journaling or writing exercises that include imagining yourself at age 100 and looking back on your accomplishments, or making a list of compliments you have received about your body.
At the beginning of each of our workshops, after the two counselors dimmed the lights and turned on soft music, we would meditate. Virginia Vanscoy, a therapist at Smith College, wrote the words that moved and stretched us. With our shoes off and belts loosened, the counselor read her words to us, "Squat down and move from side to side. Find your body's own balance . . . Notice the power of the muscles in your legs."
Sprawled on the floor of the darkened room, Alison and I, along with the other women, felt our legs and the curve of our stomachs. We tried to believe the meditation's message: "This strong, yet fragile, beautiful and flawed body is the temple to your womanly spirit."
For more information:
* Eating Disorders Awareness & Prevention Inc., 800-931-2237; or, www.edap.org/.
* A.C.T. Out Ensemble, www.actoutensemble.com; or, 317-278-2530.