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San Diego Magazine March, 2001

Redefining Beauty
For the Health of It

By Jan Phillips

WHAT BEGAN as a dinner conversation among three friends in La Jolla has turned into a mind-expanding multimedia project that's capturing the attention of the public and press across the country. It's called the Real Women Project, and its goal is to spread an epidemic of self-acceptance by turning the tide on women's low self-esteem and body image.

"If a woman finds her body unacceptable, her dis-ease compromises her immune system and can lead to disease," says La Jolla psychotherapist Cathy Conheim, who started the project with physicians Donna Brooks of La Jolla and Barbara Levy of Federal Way, Washington. "We're looking at beauty through a wider, more inclusive lens, going beyond the traditions that measure a woman's value by her physical appearance."

The Real Women Project is calling attention to the staggering numbers of women and girls who are literally dying to be thin. Close to 10 million people in America have a serious eating disorder; 95 percent are women. More than 1,000 women die each year from anorexia, while bulimia's victims go largely unreported. Research shows that exposure to idealized images in fashion magazines produces depression, shame, guilt, body dissatisfaction and stress.

Fighting fire with fire, the three visionaries are using the tools of the media to get the message across. They commissioned local sculptor T.J. Dixon to produce 13 bronze sculptures of women of diverse cultures, sizes and ages. The artworks are part of "The Changing Face of Women's Health," a five-year traveling exhibit for the National Health Sciences Consortium that will be seen by 6 million viewers. Qualcomm also purchased a set of the sculptures for display and educational programs at the Scripps Center for Women's Health in La Jolla.

Several local artists have joined the cause, producing music and storytelling CDs, a videotape and an anthology of stories on the Real Women Web site. Presenters are leading multisensory workshops locally and around the country, using imagery, song and story to help women expand their belief systems about beauty and achieve a healthy level of self-acceptance.

"The best foundation for a healthy mind, body and spirit is self-love," says co-founder Donna Brooks. "If we're going to create an epidemic of health, that's where we have to start."

For more information, please contact the Real Women Project.

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