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RealWomenProject.org
LA Times, 5 July, 2000
Real Women Take On a Real Image Problem

A project launched by health professionals to end our perfect-body obsession
uses music, images, and literature to promote self-acceptance

By Lynell George, Times Staff Writer

It's certainly not breaking news that a lot of women carry more than a towel, Walkman, and cross-trainers to the gym. Too many also are accompanied by a pantheon of motivational, albeit unrealistic, muses-perpetually hipless and flab-free.

Nor is it a headline-grabber that a trip to the mall increasingly finds women in an authentic "Alice in Wonderland" adventure-"What a curious feeling!"-when a "large" has suddenly become "small" and "small" looks like it belongs in the toy department.

No, not news, but a mind and body issue that has compromised the mental and physical health of women across the country and around the world. It has, many health experts agree, robbed them of creativity and productivity and narrowed their focus to the navel-and the belly attached to it. And when a woman's had nothing but celery and water all day, there certainly isn't much energy with which to fight back.

According to Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, Inc., 5 million to 10 million adolescent girls and women struggle with eating disorders in the United States. Almost half of all American women are on a diet on any given day. More than a third of that number progress to pathological dieting and a quarter of that number move on to partial or full-blown eating disorders. (Perplexing statistics since the Public Health Institute announced last month that more than half of California's adults are overweight, matching a national trend.)

What is finally reaching the front pages is a concerted opposition that has found its voice and is now bent on raising it. Just last month the British government convened a Body Image Summit with prominent fashion magazine editors to discuss how to monitor published images and to ensure that models vary in shape and size. And now, even Southern California, the enduring temple of youth and perfection, is getting a timely dose of enlightenment.

Dr. Donna Brooks and Dr. Barbara Levy, both obstetricians, and Cathy Conheim, a psychotherapist, launched the Real Women Project, a multimedia, multi-sensory approach to women's health issues, particularly those related to body image. The project began 2 years ago in La Jolla with a series of sculptures and has grown to include such efforts as a book, CD, and even educational seminars.

So many of their patients, they observed, had tied self-worth to body image. Women put off breast or pelvic exams because they require disrobing and, even worse, getting on a scale.

"It was as if they would choose to have cancer rather than to get the checkup because they were more concerned about what they looked like," Conheim says. "As health care professionals, we figured if we could only pick one issue that would influence women's health, what would it be? - What we came up with was this whole obsession defining women's beauty."

The effort, most experts agree, should begin with a big dose of re-education, one that starts with deeper understanding of how we got from there to here.

"Basically until the turn of the century, there was a definite preference for plumpness of women in Western civilization. You can see it in the art, where you're pretty hard-pressed to find an image of a thin woman," says Laura Fraser, author of "Losing It: False Hopes and Fat Profits in the Diet Industry" (Plume, 1998). That began to change between 1900 and 1920, "when it was possible for the first time for people in the U.S. to have enough to eat to the status symbol flipped. Once seen as a sign of health and prosperity to be fat - now there was an elitism to being thin."

That factor, says Fraser, coupled with women's changing social roles, shifted the way women presented themselves publicly.

"Women were starting to go to college, were becoming more athletic. They cast aside the plump figure as old-fashioned. It was modern to be lean, streamlined, just like the architecture," she says. "In many ways, feminism fueled our obsession with weight - . There suddenly was no space for women to do both of those things. A rounded woman goes against the mean, lean working aesthetic. And that persists today. It has become the norm. And women have internalized it" to the point that they will do anything, including risking their lives, to achieve that model.

Grass Roots Effort to Define 'Beauty'

"We have to be reminded that we are not born with body hatred," says Margo Main, author of "Body Wars: Making Peace With Women's Body: An Activist's Guide (Gurza Books, 1999), "and that the culture is ambivalent about our role and status. And how we keep women in their place in our society is through their bodies - . Let's look at what contributes to it [body hatred] but also, let's look at the things you can do to fight back."

Finally, says Main, counter-movements and projects have begun to join forces, such as the Beautiful Project, a grass-roots effort to redefine beauty through workshops and activism, to San Francisco's passing of an ordinance banning body bias to organizations such as Girls, Inc. and Go Girls!

The Real Women Project has chosen to try to beat prevailing standards by using the same tools that established them. It employs the tools of advertising-imagery, music, literature-to appeal to women's senses and to promote self-acceptance.

Brooks, Levy and Conheim made lists of women they felt reflected a range of beauty, depth and self-assuredness. They then commissioned a local sculptor, their friend T.J. Dixon, to create a series of 11-inch representative sculptures using 13 of those women, ranging in age from 14 to 75, who posed nude. The series is meant not only to broaden the definition of beauty but also to reflect the different stages in a women's life.

"Body image affects all aspects of women's health," says Levy, who also is the medical director of the Franciscan Health System, Women's Health Center in Federal Way, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. The health center displays a set of the bronzes as both an educational tool and a respite from the images of rail-thin young models that bombard women daily. "For younger women, it's how we eat, how we hold ourselves, how we exercise. We don't breathe right or stand right because we are trying to hold our stomachs in or are wearing clothes that are too tight. When we get older, it adds to a lot of the issues women have with menopause. Nobody ever teaches you that moodiness could be related to body image or how women are treated in our culture - . I see it every single day. From every single woman."

Although the three organizers felt their project would make a powerful statement, they didn't have a clue about how to get the message nationwide.

"We got very fortunate," Conheim says.

When the series was only half finished, Conheim sent six sculptures to curators assembling "The Changing Face of Women's Health," an exhibit mounted by the National Sciences Consortium that would travel to 10 U.S. cities. The statues were immediately accepted for the show, which is scheduled to conclude at the California Science Center in Los Angeles in 2003.

Then Qualcomm, a leading U.S. communications company, became the project's first corporate sponsor. It paid $50,000 for a set of the bronzes and donated them to the Scripps Center Women's Health in La Jolla.

"Donna and Cathy were trying to communicate the message that everyone should have a definition of beauty that includes themselves," says Ellie Glaser, chairwoman of Qualcomm's Corporate Foundations. "Our intent was to provide an educational tool assisting not just women, but people in general, in understanding that beauty is within all of us - . That it comes in all shapes and sizes."

The project now includes poetry, written by one of the models, River Malcolm, to accompany each sculpture. There also is a book, "A Waist Is a Terrible Thing to Mind: A Wake-Up Call" (Breakthrough Press, 2000), written by Conheim, Jan Phillips and Christine Forrester; a calendar CD; and two Web sites.

Much of the material has been integrated into a series of "Real Women: Real Beauty" workshops that help women take apart their old concepts of self-image and beauty and build new ones from the ground up.

Other organizations have expressed interest in the project, Conheim says, including the Web site staff at Mode magazine and the posh Canyon Ranch Health Resort in Tucson, which has adopted parts of the "Real Women" workshop for its own body image counseling. Dr. Lana Holstein, women's health director at the resort, says the program as had great success.

Transformative Experiences

Hundreds of women who have gone through the seminar talk about the memories they unearth and the demons they now know they need to confront, says Conheim, but it was the 13 sculpture models who had the most transformative experiences.

"I cried when I saw it. It changed me." Says Tabor Knight, 62, whose stance-a raised chin, an uplifted should and arms hung loose against rounded hips-conveys both pride and contentment. "I went from feeling alone is a body that I overcome the real, real, not just negative, but destructive relationship with my body."

For the most part, the project's founders, like others with the same mission, want women to have a realistic sense of their bodies, their assets as well as their limitations.

"It's tough," says author Fraser. "Here I am; I've written a book about the topic, but if I go in and try every pair of flat-front Capri pants in the store and never find a size that fits me, I come out incredibly depressed.

"Intellectually, I can say that that is ridiculous, but the culture has embedded it in our psyche. It's difficult not to feel that somehow you failed as a woman if you are not thin."

Social change takes a generation or two, Margo Maine acknowledges. But, she adds, "we have no idea the cost women's lives and the health care system all of this over-exercising and severe dieting will do. We need to be activists."

Maine says young men should be mentored, along with young women.

"This is not just women's work, even though they think it is," she says.

"I think about Rosa Parks not giving up her seat. That single gesture helped the civil rights movement. We have to do the same kind of thing. We need a body rights movement."

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times

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