- Eating disorders affect 30 million people in the United States, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
- To help promote better body image and eating disorder awareness, the Long-Term InVestment in Education for Wellness (LIVE WELL) Act was introduced to Congress and if passed, could mandate body image education in federal nutrition programs for all people regardless of weight or body type.
- To promote the goals of the LIVE WELL Act, NEDA developed The Body Project, a “group-based intervention that provides a forum for women and girls to confront unrealistic beauty ideals and engages them in the development of healthy body image through verbal, written, and behavioral exercises.”
- To better understand the goals of The Body Project and what it entails, I attended a session at NEDA headquarters in Times Square in New York City.
- The program gives participants the tools to embrace themselves and deflect any future negative body image comments
Eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia, affect 30 million people in the United States, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Despite this prevalence, however, these illnesses are often misunderstood as lifestyle choices. But a special initiative designed to discuss body image issues with school-aged kids and adults alike could help bring more awareness to the seriousness of eating disorders.
The initiative, called The Body Project, was developed by NEDA and researchers who have studied the effects of appearance-based ideals on girls and women for two decades. NEDA describes The Body Project as, “a group-based intervention that provides a forum for women and girls to confront unrealistic beauty ideals and engages them in the development of healthy body image through verbal, written, and behavioral exercises.”
The United States government demonstrated its interest in initiatives like The Body Project when, on November 19, 2018, it announced an amendment called the Long-Term InVestment in Education for Wellness (LIVE WELL) Act, which could potentially mandate body image education in federal nutrition programs for all people regardless of weight or body type, NEDA said in a press release.
To better understand the goals of The Body Project and what it entails, I attended a session at NEDA headquarters in Times Square in New York City, where a group of about 10 men and women discussed their own experiences with body image issues and the ways we as a society can prevent the promotion of unrealistic beauty ideals. Here’s what I learned.
Before meeting in person, each participant took a pre-survey about their relationship with their body
A few days before attending class, all participants completed a three-page survey asking us to rank how we feel about our bodies and eating habits, as well as the types of people we found conventionally attractive. Eventually, we would take a post-class survey too to see how our mindsets changed.
According to Lauren Smolar, the director of programs for NEDA, these surveys help the organization better gauge the effectiveness of its curriculum in the ever-changing media and body image landscape. “Since The Body Project is in its pilot stage, we seek feedback and track impact on attendees,” she told INSIDER.
I also had to write a letter to someone who made me feel like I had to conform to a certain body standard and explain how it made me feel, plus what I would say to that person now. These exercises helped to open the discussion portion of the class and made the whole experience feel personal.
We worked as a group to define society’s “perfect” man and woman
On the day of the session, myself and eight others gathered at NEDA’s headquarter offices in New York City. Before diving into any activities, each person had to tell other members that they were “willing to actively participate in the group.” Since The Body Project is mainly targeted towards girls in high school and college, I thought this act of consent really made a difference and set the program apart from my own high school health class experience, which always felt awkward and lacked student participation.
Following our statements, we brainstormed the ideal man and woman: what their bodies looked like, the colors of their hair, and even how much body hair they should have to fit society’s beauty standards.
After our moderator wrote these traits out, we discussed where body ideals come from, who benefits from the ideals, and what happens when people try to achieve these unrealistic goals. “By visualizing those ideals, we realize they don’t make sense,” Smolar told INSIDER. “This exercise raises questions and helps attendees think critically about the messaging they receive.”
Next, we each shared 1 non-physical and 2 physical traits we liked about ourselves
Using information from the pre-class survey, everyone had to share what they liked about themselves with the group. This part of the class made me emotional because it made me realize we tend to talk about what we don’t like about ourselves, rather than what we like. It was refreshing to see both men and women share physical and non-physical traits they were proud of in a safe space.
This exercise also made me realize how much the human body is capable of. One woman, for example, mentioned being proud of her experience giving birth, which didn’t even cross my mind as a body-positive act until that moment.
To finish up this portion of the session, we shared experiences where we were shamed about our bodies, oftentimes citing the moments we wrote about in our pre-class letters. This exercise demonstrated we aren’t alone in dealing with body image issues and that they affect everyone.
Smolar said her team has had especially positive feedback with this portion of the initiative. “It gives a sense of community, understanding, and empathy that shows everyone has had an experience where their body has been challenged or criticized,” she said. Offering participants the ability to reexamine and respond to those situations gives them a chance to take back control over their bodies too, Smolar explained.
We also workshopped ways to deflect negative body comments and promote better body image for ourselves and others
To wrap up the experience, we completed an exercise which helped us learn to deflect any future negative body image comments we would encounter in our lives. To do this, our moderator would read either an insult directed at us or a harmful comment someone might say about themselves and then we’d think about how to respond in a body positive way. Hearing someone say “I look so ugly” or “Are you really going to eat that?” was pretty shocking and having to respond on the spot was difficult, but it was also very useful and applicable to experiences we deal with daily.
While our session was about three hours long, The Body Project is usually a 45-minute session a couple of times per week for four to six weeks. After going through each exercise, I felt more validated about my own experiences with body image and had more skills for deflecting negative representations that could influence me.
A few weeks after the class, I was sent the same survey I took before class and was asked to fill it out again. This exercise reinforced everything we learned and made me realize how the exercises created an increased awareness about how I treat and look at my own body.
Looking back on my own grade school years, I wish a curriculum like The Body Project existed to help my friends and me better navigate our changing bodies and the negative messaging we received basically every day. Hopefully this initiative will become commonplace since, based on my experience, it can provide helpful tools for preventing eating and body image disorders.
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