A powerful experience while attending the NEDA Conference was being trained as a facilitator and trainer for the Body Project, the only evidence based body acceptance and eating disorder prevention program. Over two days I ran through the program twice and it left a profound impact on me and my fellow trainees. Even as someone who has struggled so much with body acceptance it was eye opening to sit and really dedicate time to consciously thinking about how pervasive beauty and thin ideals are in society.
The Body Project was developed among researchers from Standford University, the University of Texas at Austin and Oregon Research Institute. No other prevention program has been found to significantly reduce future eating disorder onset and produce effects that persist through a 3-year follow up. So far it has been delivered to over one million young women around the world. I was trained along with others from different states to train people in my community on how to facilitate the program, allowing the program to be systemic. The course is four weeks long and leads a group of 6-8 high school girls through verbal, written and behavioral exercises aimed at creating cognitive dissonance between the woman’s beliefs about her body/herself and the thin-ideal that perpetuates incredibly unrealistic beauty standards. Try having a tiny waist and curves, long legs without being too tall, and hair that is full and thick but is magically never affected by humidity… it’s all physically impossible, yet it’s what millions of women falsely believe they aren’t measuring up to.
All the exercises are thought provoking, but one of my favorites was the quick comebacks to appearance-ideal statements where the girls role play how to combat far too common statements on beauty and thinness. You may think this type of talk is more typical among high school teens, but as an adult woman surrounded by many other very intelligent women at work I hear comments that fall into this category often. I often want to say something, but have kept quiet thinking maybe I’m more sensitive to it than others considering I have a constant radar fine tuned to pick up anything food and body related because of my illness. Regardless, it’s so sad to think that so many smart, kind, and independent women spend so much time and energy dwelling on their looks. I fully believe most don’t even recognize they are contributing to the problem because it is so ingrained in our culture.
It’s normal for women and girls to talk this way, but stop and ask yourself, should it be? Should it be normal to justify eating a snack, treat, or carb because you ate salad for lunch, or have plans to work out later, or are stressed out, or the many other rationalizations I hear? Why are we justifying why we can eat something, not only to ourselves, but aloud for other females to hear? It sounds so ridiculous when you sit and think about it. The body must consume food. Feeling hungry and eating is a simple signal and response from our bodies telling us what we need similar to the signal of feeling you have to go to the bathroom. How bizarre would it be if you frequently heard women justifying the need to pee? How has the pressure to eat perfect, look perfect, be perfect gotten so bad that many feel they can’t eat certain things without feeling true guilt or thinking that other women will judge them, that other women are monitoring them in some constant competition or comparison?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I really hope that spreading knowledge on these ideals and behaviors prevents them from being as accepted in younger generations. I know the course has impacted my daily thoughts and behaviors and I hope reading this makes you think twice about what you say and do as well. I am incredibly excited to lead a group of young women through the body project and am hoping to find a school in the Grand Rapids area that will allow MiEDA to come in and run the program sometime soon.
To read empirical support of the Body Project please see these academic papers.