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Body Project to raise awareness about the importance of image acceptance

October 08, 2013

Raise your hand if you count each calorie before consuming it. Have you ever tried something on and asked a friend or partner, “Does this make me look fat?” Well, you are not alone. In the United States alone, the National Eating Disorders Association reports that roughly 20 million women suffer from an eating disorder.

Arizona State University health psychologist Marisol Perez has made it her mission to reverse the negative effects that an unhealthy eating pathology has on college women by bringing a nationally-respected program to campus.

During her time as a professor at Texas A&M University, Perez became involved with the Body Project, a program created by ASU alumnus Eric Stice to serve as a prevention group for at-risk high school students. In her role, she developed and disseminated a unique version of the program that fit within the infrastructure of university life for on-campus sororities.

“They are a great population because freshman year is the first time they are getting to be independent. They are also fully aware of the pressures put on body image,” she said.

To ensure the greatest chance of success, a group of peer leaders were trained on the Body Project’s philosophies and how to provide support to those experiencing body dissatisfaction. The volunteers then led two sessions in which sorority members would discuss the pressures they were facing that led them to have a negative self-image. The open dialogue brought to life many things that are otherwise swept under the rug. At the end of the sessions, Perez says that the symptom level for eating disorders dramatically decreased by 60 percent and the effects lasted up to three years.   

“When it came time for recruitment, we saw that the girls brought in a new class that matched their body acceptance ideals. The second year of recruitment brought the same thing. We were making the whole sorority healthier to the point where they wouldn’t need us anymore,” she said.

Along with the sessions, the project provided opportunities for community activism. The women all wrote letters to local high school students explaining what they know today that they wished they would have known then. Altogether, 250 letters were delivered. Another impactful campaign had five men approach fellow male students at coffee shops and ask them what they look for in a partner. From the 500 responses, attributes related to personality and companionship were overwhelmingly reported over physical qualities.  

“It made our message so much more powerful. The guys were reinforcing that there isn’t a single physical type they are looking for,” said Perez.  

Now at ASU, she would like to bring the project to all four campuses and replicate results. University leaders and departments have already expressed tremendous support. Those interested in becoming a peer leader or being involved in the program may contact her directly by email.

The Department of Psychology is an academic unit in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.