OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — The emphasis on appearance over intelligence, personality and behavior starts early for girls, and that culture turns particularly toxic during the teen years, when it can contribute to the development of eating disorders. But a peer-driven group known as REbeL has started fighting back in Kansas high schools and middle schools by taking a proactive stance to develop positive body images.

Students write what they find beautiful about themselves for REbeL-sponosred #WhiteBoardWednesdays at Kansas high schools. (Photo courtesy of REbeL)
Students write what they find beautiful about themselves for REbeL-sponosred #WhiteBoardWednesdays at Kansas high schools. (Photo courtesy of REbeL)

That funky capitalization of REbeL (pronounced re-BELL) is meant to showcase the word “be,” as in “be you,” said founder Laura Eickman, a clinical psychologist who battled eating disorders herself during high school and college and then treated patients with body image issues in her practice. “The problem wasn’t getting better,” she said. “In fact, it was worse.”

Some 30 million people suffer from eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, yet Eickman said the public fails to realize how pervasive the problem is despite initiatives such as National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which ends today.

She wanted to do more than just treat one patient at a time. She wanted to empower teens to change their culture.

Focus groups showed students were eager to discuss these issues, so Eickman offered to start the first chapter of REbeL at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park six years ago. Girls — and a few boys — joined the group and received training to become peer educators, learning about disordered eating, body image, media literacy and leadership — and how to share this information with other students, whether it’s through the group’s annual walk or “Mirrorless Mondays” or #WhiteBoardWednesdays.

“We brainstorm about ways to spread the message and raise awareness,” said Alex Kontopanos, a senior at Blue Valley High.

Compliment cookies containing inspirational sayings are handed out at school events such as football games. Mirrors are covered up, in both the girls’ and boys’ restrooms, on “Mirrorless Mondays” to promote a healthier body image by avoiding too much self-scrutiny.

#WhiteboardWednesdays take advantage of social media such as Instagram and Twitter to share photos of students — not just those in REbeL — with a whiteboard message telling what they love about themselves. “We try to use social media in a more positive manner,” said Lily Bredemeier, a junior at Blue Valley Northwest High. “You help students appreciate who they are on the inside rather than on the outside.”

“It’s definitely changed the way I look at people,” Kontopanos said.

Both Bredemeier and Kontopanos are serving on the leadership teams for the REbeL chapters at their schools, learning to lead meetings and delving even more deeply into issues.

A pilot research study shows positive results beyond the enthusiasm of the students I spoke with. Appearance-related body checking was significantly reduced, Eickman said. Body checking is a behavioral feature of body dissatisfaction and is often a symptom of eating disorders, she explained.

The study also found significant decreases is dysfunctional attitudes about appearance and in the amount of self-worth based on appearance, while the ability to exercise for enjoyment (rather than to lose weight) and to receive and give compliments increased. Students in REbeL also demonstrated an increase in their sense of group empowerment.

Cara Lunsford, a junior at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kan., tells what she loves about herself for #WhiteBoardWednesdays, a REbeL-sponored event. (Photo courtesy of Jill Lunsford) Cara Lunsford, a junior at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kan. and a member of REbeL, tells what she loves about herself for #WhiteBoardWednesdays. (Photo courtesy of Jill Lunsford)

Her time in REbeL gave her more self-confidence, said Alex Arvanitakis, now a student at the University of Kansas majoring in biology and a graduate of Blue Valley Northwest. “It made me appreciate who I am, both externally and internally, and to see things important beyond appearance.”

She lives in an all-girl dorm “where there’s a lot of ‘fat talk,’ ” she said. Her experience in REbeL taught her the best way to respond to those comments of “I’m so fat, I ate a box of ice cream last night” or “my hair looks terrible today.” Instead of denying those comments in the kind of exchange most women know all too well (“no, you’re not fat” or “your hair looks great, really”), “Tell them something I like about them and integrate that into the conversation at other times,” explained Arvanitakis. She called them “constructive compliments.”

That focus on positive reinforcement of what’s good about people, rather than what’s attractive about their appearance, seems to be the heart of REbeL, along with empowering students to become the leaders in this movement.

“Teenagers want to make a difference,” Eickman said. “It’s making kids the educators.” She sees the program as an innovative way to fill a gap in the schools that hasn’t been addressed.

The program has spread. It’s now in five area high schools, including a Catholic girls’ school, plus five middle schools, involving at least 300 students at any time. A pilot program at the college level will begin at the University of Kansas.

Thirty-six schools in six states have requested the program, and Eickman is working to get an infrastructure in place so it can be used elsewhere. “It has significant potential,” she said.

Eickman gave up her private practice to devote her time as an unpaid volunteer to REbeL. Her dream? To take the nonprofit group nationwide.

“It’s hard not to fall in love with the program because it’s so positive,” says Bredemeier. “I’m helping to try to change the world.”