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Body Project empowers young women to accept themselves

Body Project peer leaders for fall 2014 semester.

Each Body Project group meets only twice over the course of a month, a small time investment that reaps big rewards in body acceptance. The program uses a peer-leadership model: Peer leaders, pictured from fall 2014, are trained to guide discussions and build group trust.

September 04, 2015

Gabby Avalos had not worn a bikini in more than a year when she visited Nicaragua this summer, where, she said, she triumphantly “rocked” one.

During that year, something happened to the ASU junior that gave her the autonomy to do so without fear of ridicule or her own self-consciousness: She became involved in the Body Project.

The Body Project got its start at Texas A&M, where it was initially created as an eating-disorder prevention program for high school girls. Marisol Perez was a professor there at the time and helped to adapt the program for college women, a process that served to shape its current format.

“We started to realize it was more than just eating-disorder symptoms that were being improved,” said Perez, now an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University. “So it became kind of a health program instead of an eating-disorder program, with a focus on body acceptance.”

Perez chose to bring the Body Project to ASU because she was looking for an institution that would allow her to observe and measure the program’s effectiveness on a larger scale.

“I felt like I could launch a large-scale dissemination study [at ASU] that would serve as a platform for how to disseminate it even further throughout the United States,” she said.

Now, she is happy to report it has gone even further than that.  

In January, Perez and colleague Carolyn Becker from Trinity University in San Antonio traveled to Mexico, where they met with officials at Comenzar de Nuevo, a not-for-profit organization that assists women in securing financial resources to seek treatment for eating disorders.

Perez and Becker agreed to partner with the organization to help launch the Body Project throughout Mexico, providing training on the program’s mission and practices, and translating the related materials into Spanish. Mexico’s Ministry of Education has since given permission for the Body Project to be implemented in high schools and universities nationwide, beginning in Monterrey, with a goal of reaching 10,000 educational institutions within the first year.

The Body Project has also received attention from the Dove Foundation, headquartered in London, which has implemented components of the program in its company training as well as its campaigns (perhaps most notably The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty).

“One thing that's great about the Body Project is that it has such long-term effects,” said Tara Ohrt, a psychology grad student who, like Avalos, is a peer leader for the Body Project at ASU.

And that has been proven. Perez and colleagues distributed self-report questionnaires to women who had participated in the Body Project after three months, six months and 12 months. The results showed a 60 percent reduction in pathology symptoms – unhealthy behaviors such as “fat talk” – a full year after completing the program.

In the case of one grant-funded trial of the Body Project, Perez and colleagues were able to follow up with participants up to three years after they had completed it.

“So, essentially, we can maintain the effects for almost the entire college experience,” Perez said.

The program uses a peer-leadership model: Peer leaders undergo 16 hours of training, during which they learn essential leadership skills, such as how to earn a group’s trust and how to create a fun, positive environment. Then they put those skills to work in their “groups.”

Groups consist mostly of participants, with a handful of peer leaders whose job it is to guide discussions (those interested in being a participant in the Body Project can sign up here; those interested in becoming a peer leader can sign up here).

Each group meets twice over the course of one month; each session is two hours long. So the whole Body Project experience is only four hours long, but, as is evidenced by Perez’s follow-up research, it makes a lasting impact.

There are a couple of things that ensure that, she said.

The first is simply the fact that the program gives women a space to talk about body-image issues.

“Being a woman, how many times in your life have you had an opportunity to get together with a group of women and talk about the pressures you feel to look a certain way … or the things people around you do or say that make you feel bad?” Perez said. “We never do that. So just the fact that we provide that opportunity is important.”

The second, she said, is that it makes women aware of the phenomenon of social comparison.

Perez begins Body Project presentations by asking the women in the audience what they thought when she, another woman, got up on stage. Chances are, their thoughts were focused on her appearance alone – whether they liked her hair, or her clothes, or her body – and how they compared to Perez.

“That’s social comparison,” she said, “and it’s something that women engage in on a regular basis.”

When women are able to have a dialogue about social comparison, they often discover that what they saw as a flaw in themselves, other women saw as an asset. What that does, said Perez, is help women to realize that engaging in social comparison is destructive to themselves as well as other women. It also teaches them to be conscious of when they’re engaging in it and, hopefully, make a conscious effort to avoid it.

“It makes them reevaluate [that behavior] without us saying, ‘It’s bad to do this,’ ” she said.

One of peer leader Amanda Bruening’s favorite parts of the group sessions is the behavioral challenges they give participants to do as “homework.”

“We ask women to think of something they don't do because of their insecurities. For instance, ‘I don't run in just a sports bra.’ Then we ask them to do that activity just once before the second session,” said Bruening, a doctoral student in psychology at ASU. “Hearing what these women limit themselves from doing is very revealing about how deep-seated these body image issues are. …

“When the women recount conquering their behavioral challenge the next session, there is a lightness about them. It's amazing to witness the transformation.”

Another thing participants often come to understand is that suffering with body-image issues is something most, if not all, women deal with at some point in their lives.

“We realized that we are not alone in our mission to love ourselves and change the way our culture views health and beauty. We learned how powerful we can be when we band together,” said ASU junior and Body Project peer leader Katie Gandee, who six years ago was suffering from anorexia nervosa.

Each group in the program is required to take on an activism project that they come up with. Past years have seen groups writing body-positive messages on the sidewalk along Palm Walk or on Starbucks cups; handing out body-positive valentines; and leaving Post-It notes on exercise machines at the student fitness center with such phrases as, “It’s not the number on the machine but how you feel that matters.”

They also write letters to high school girls telling them about what they’ve learned in the Body Project, a sort of “if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now” manifesto. Last year 15,000 letters were delivered to high school girls in Phoenix alone.

The Body Project also sponsors and helps promote several events throughout the year. One event, Sun Devils Wear Prada, is a fashion show put on by the club of the same name, which aims to “inspire women to reveal self-worth through personal style.” Another event features former Victoria’s Secret model Kylie Bisutti speaking about how she gave up her career as a lingerie model because of the pressure put on women in the industry to meet unrealistic body ideals – and how that in turn affects all women.

Bruening bemoans the same point: “When women buy into societal pressures to look a certain way, it takes away from other things. … They invest less in areas like their relationships or career. … Women's idea of self is intimately tied to appearances, and we need to break this. We need to break it to develop better relationships and to foster more women leaders. We need to break it for ourselves.”

Perez reveals that there are plans in the works to make the Body Project accessible to perhaps the most crucial demographic: young girls.

“Our long-term goal is to train peer leaders to go back to their local high schools and work with the teachers, the administration and the students to figure out a way to get the program implemented there,” she said. “And once that’s set up, we’ll send peer leaders to middle schools. So by the time (girls from those schools) come to ASU – imagine 10 years from now – we will be getting women who have been through the Body Project since middle school.”

Many of the women who participate or serve as peer leaders in the Body Project continue to be involved after completing the program and, sometimes, even after graduating from college.

“The other thing we do that I think is impactful for ASU, aside from running this program, is that we’re creating community change and pumping new leaders into the campus every year,” Perez said.

Bruening, like many of her fellow peer leaders, takes that role seriously. She wants women and girls to know that they are more than the sum of their parts.

“You have eyes, arms, a brain,” she said, “but you are not just eyes; you are not just arms; you are not just a brain. We all have fat; you are not fat. You are so much more.”