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The Other Side Magazine, January 2000
"At the Well"

Redefining Beauty

"How we feel about ourselves affects our emotional and physical health. If a woman finds her own body unacceptable, her dis-ease could easily lead to disease. The goal of this project is to help women come up with a definition of beauty that is more inclusive than exclusive."

The speaker is psychotherapist Cathy Conheim, and the project is called "Real Women." It began when she and two physicians, Donna Brooks and Barbara Levy, met to discuss what they might do to improve the status of women's mental and physical well-being. They agreed that women's judgmental attitudes about their own bodies lead to high health risks, and that the root of the problem is society's rigid and narrow definition of beauty. Their solution? Expand the definition of beauty.

Initially, the three established the Athena Foundation and commissioned sculptor T.J. Dixon to create a set of bronze sculptures of women of diverse cultures, shapes, sizes, and ages. Each of thirteen women made a decision-initially difficult but ultimately transforming-to be sculpted, and selected the pose that most reflected her experience of living. Once the sculptures were cast, River Malcolm wrote a poem about the beauty of each woman.

One set of these ten-inch sculptures is now part of "The Changing Face of Women's Health," a five-year exhibit that is traveling to science museums throughout the country. Other sets, along with the poems, are on exhibit at healing centers and health spas in such cities as Seattle, Atlanta, and Tucson.

The project also offers workshops that help women explore their beliefs about beauty and examine whether these beliefs are good for their sense of well-being. Says Brooks, "This project encourages women of all shapes and sizes to love themselves as they are, and work from there to achieve the fitness they're after."

The project is fighting an uphill battle. In the United States today, nine out of ten girls have a Barbie doll that models a figure unattainable in real life. Of the approximately ten million people with a serious eating disorder, 9.5 million are women. Each year more than one thousand women die 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. Women and young girls are literally "dying to be thin," encouraged by a $33 billion-per-year cosmetics industry.

"It's time," says Conheim, "for the churches, the schools, the whole culture to start encouraging women to feel whole, vital, and beautiful exactly as they are, and to stop harming themselves in their quest for a beauty that someone else has defined."

Reprinted from the January 2000 Issue of The Other Side Magazine: � 2000 All rights reserved

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