STORY BY EMILY VANSCHMUS
At 7 p. m. sharp on the first Monday of every month, a group of women enter The Support Room, a group designed to offer body image support for women suffering from eating disorders or negative body image. Throughout the session the women talk with a counselor and do activities to improve their self-image. After the 90 minutes are up, the women wish each other luck in the upcoming week, and click “sign out.”
The Support Room is a feature of the Butterfly Foundation, a support group based in Australia that uses online platforms to reach struggling women.
Support groups are structured in four-week programs designed by counselors and experts in the field of treatment. While the Butterfly Foundation is based in Australia, anyone anywhere can make an account on their website and register to participate in either the online group support program or a one-on-one session with a personal counselor.
The Butterfly Foundation offers the online counseling because many individuals with eating disorders or extremely distorted body images could have anxiety about physically going into a clinic, and an online platform allows them to get the help they need from the comfort of their own home.
Many other initiatives like the Butterfly Foundation are springing up across the world.
IT’S ON THE RISE
The rising trend of eating disorders and negative body image is an epidemic crossing the globe. It’s a trend that has been extensively researched and discussed, but even after all the attention this topic has received, the facts are startling.
The National Eating Disorder Association conducted research representing all young people in America, and the results reported by the youngest girls are especially frightening.
More than 40 percent of first, second and third grade girls want to be thinner, and 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Almost half of the girls ages nine to 11 reported consistent dieting, and over half of all teenage girls reported using unhealthy weight control behaviors related to a negative body image.
Over 90 percent of all women with eating disorders say they first developed their unhealthy habits between the ages of 12 and 25, as a result of a negative body image, as reported by NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association. This age range, reported in 2014, is significantly younger than it has been in past years. Organizations like the Butterfly Foundation are trying to reverse these statistics by holding body-image workshops in schools and workplaces in addition to online support groups.
Sociologist and Drake University professor Janet Wirth-Cauchon teaches a sociology class that warns of the societal impacts on mental illnesses like eating disorders. She explained that while a negative body image might seem like a small issue to some, the societal impact of collectively changing the mindset of this generation of young women would be huge.
“Girls are socialized to define their worth by their appearance,” she said. “This is particularly a problem for pre-teens and adolescents since their bodies are developing and changing.”
Every year teenaged campers attend B’nai B’rith, a Jewish summer camp for outdoor and religious activities. The camp has been holding regular summer sessions since 1921, but this summer, the camp is enacting a new initiative and turning itself into a body-image-improvement camp for young girls for a week.
B’nai B’rith won a grant from Hazon, a non-profit Jewish organization that works to promote healthy communities. This grant will allow B’nai B’rith to host their first-ever body image summer camp that will teach girls how to obtain a better self-image then take what they learn back into their daily lives.
The 20 girls who already signed up for the 2015 summer session will complete activities and programs designed to improve the way they view body image through a connection with their faith.
Colorado native Madeline Cohen has been attending Jewish summer camps since grade school, and after graduating high school, spent two summers working at various camps to give younger girls the same opportunities she experienced. She explained that the environment of B’nai B’rith is the perfect place for this new body-image initiative.
“The atmosphere is very accepting and focused on being at peace with yourself,” Cohen explained. “Once campers are at peace with themselves, they learn how to be more accepting of other people. Jewish camps in general have a very relaxed and open feel to them and that environment definitely fosters positive feelings of self worth.”
Michelle Koplan, B’nai B’rith’s executive director, announced the new program and explained the connection of body image to Jewish ideals.
“It gives us an avenue for constructive conversations surrounding body image and Jewish identity, which is one of the many important Jewish values that we explore throughout the camp experience,” she said.
Cohen echoed the sentiment that a camp centered around Judaism is a perfect place to foster positive body image.
“Jews are generally a minority, and whether it is intentional or not, in society there is always a small divide — but when you get a bunch of them together in a camp, it’s a bond and a comfort unmatched in other places,” she said. “For me, Judaism has been more of a culture I’ve grown up in and it’s really hard to explain to people who haven’t also grown up in it, so when I started going to camp I immediately found I was able to be myself and open up in ways I hadn’t easily been able to before.
Cohen said the camp is a platform that gets girls involved and excited about improving their body image, and hopes more of these programs are implemented in the future.
“That kind of environment would absolutely be able to help someone increase their self-esteem and body image because of the ability to completely let your guard down. This is something that is really important and I’m glad the Jewish community is recognizing the need for change,” she said.
Hazon, the organization that is funding B’nai B’rith’s camp, has offered a grant of the same kind to three other Jewish summer camps across the country, making body image improvements available to young girls across the United States.
A NATIONAL CAMPAIGN
Professor Wirth-Cauchon points out that images in the media are to blame for the socialization of young girls’ negative body images. Seeing unnaturally thin (and more often than not, photoshopped) models on billboards and posters from a young age makes girls think they need to look exactly like the models in magazines and advertisements.
“The main risk is young women taking these artificial, technologically — constructed images as real. While young consumers of these images might realize they are artificial to some extent, there is still a danger that these unreal bodies subtly shape young women’s expectations of how they should look,” she said.
In the spring of 2014, Aerie, a branch of American Eagle Outfitters that sells bras and underwear to teen girls, launched their #aerieREAL campaign.
This initiative is aimed at the brand’s target audience, 15 to 21-year-old women.
The campaign involved removing all unrealistically-thin models from their advertising and replacing them with “real” girls who supported rolls, cellulite, stretch marks, and most importantly, had been untouched by photo editing. Throughout the spring and fall of 2014, they promoted their slogan, “the real you is sexy,” by encouraging customers to post images of themselves without makeup or in a comfortable environment.
On Black Friday, Aerie launched their winter campaign to continue the positive body initiative by releasing advertising that stated, “We believe in Santa, but NOT in retouching. The REAL you is sexy.” Support from women all over the world came pouring in via social media. The hashtag #aerieREAL went viral, trending on Twitter for several days.
College sophomore Deanna Drockton tweeted a photo and used #aerieREAL to gain support for the campaign from her Twitter followers.
“I have so much respect for Aerie because of this,” she said.
Twenty-year-old Katie Reigha tweeted a photo of her Black Friday shopping bag that featured the new winter slogan, and also used the campaign hashtag to show her support. “It’s awesome to see something like this printed on a shopping bag, with how things are today,” she said.
AN INSIDER’S VIEW
Cayley King has two perspectives on the influence of media on young girls’ body image. King has modeled since she was 14, and has been featured by various photographers while modeling for several organizations. But as a busy high school student, she also sees herself and her peers being influenced daily by images in the media, and she recognizes that the efforts to stop this is vital. “I am part of the targeted age group, but I’m also a part of the other side, so I see it both ways,” King said. “I know I don’t have a perfect body, but I also understand the industry’s point, and I understand why they have to make me look skinny in their photos.”
King explained that being made skinnier on the screen is kind of a slap to the face, but from the industry’s perspective, it is necessary.
“I understand their point, that they want to sell their product, and what better way to represent that product than the stereotypical representation of society’s perfect female?”
She understands the damage the modeling industry’s ‘skinny’ photos can cause. “Girls do care about having the best body. It’s getting to be where it’s all about being skinny and looking a certain way because you think that’s what other people want,” she said.
King is represented by Ford Models and plans to move from Indiana to New York City to continue her modeling career after graduating from high school this spring.
While she understands the continued demand to be thin on screen, she said that she hopes to do her part in helping to change the societal norm that you have to be skinny to be pretty.
A NECESSARY CHANGE
As the rising statistics of eating disorders and body image concerns continue to take the nation by storm, initiatives across the globe are doing everything possible to reverse the negative mindset society has presented to young girls. This trend has been going on for decades, and while it will not disappear overnight, finding new integrated ways to deliver the message to this young generation is imperative to it not continuing for another 10 years.
Each woman signing onto an online support group or attending a body-image workshop represents one step in the right direction toward positive change.
To find out more about eating disorders, negative body image and ways in which you can help, visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.