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Young women write about body image.


In the summer of 1998, an advertisement in Chatelaine magazine announced a writing competition that invited young women across Canada to write on the topic of body image and self-esteem. The advertisement asked young women to write about peer pressure, the media, eating disorders, sports, relationships, diet, health, and fashion. The writers were to focus on the impact these issues had on their self worth and self esteem.

The competition received more than 600 entries. In 750 to 1,000 words the young women told stories about themselves. In young, vulnerable voices, the women told the public how they were ensnared by images of anorexic women portrayed by the media as having perfect bodies, how they slowly found the courage and determination to accept and love their own bodies and themselves.

These voices are poignant reminders to the public about the difficulties of growing up female in a society that continues in many ways to profit by the exploitation of women's bodies and sexuality.

The entries were divided into two age categories -- 13 to 15 and 16 to 19 -- and out of the entries, 32 essays were selected for a book titled, That Body Image Thing, Young Women Speak Out.

While the young women were asked to include an opinion or account of a personal experience in the areas of clinical depression, anxiety attacks, eating disorders, physical, as well as, mental self-torture, the most disturbing fact was the number of essays that Chatelaine received that were about anorexia and bulimia.

For some of these young women, controlling their bodies was a way of controlling their lives. They wrote about feeling ugly, beautiful, whole, gaining self-confidence and also self-awareness. Some of the writers viewed their bodies as enemies, others as a beautiful sculptures, some as friends with whom to go dancing, running, camping, biking or canoeing. One writer described unrealistic expectations of growing Baywatch breasts and looking like celebrities Pamela Lee, Naomi Campbell or Elle McPherson.

"The young women are very clear in the book. The pressures they've got, they got from the media or from magazines that portray women a certain way," said Sara Torres, communications officer, Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women. "Initially the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women were expecting to see a number of essays on relationships with boyfriends. Instead the stories were on self-image, parents and friends. We were really surprised at how many young women focused on their bodies, the problems that they had, the complexes or pressures of looking good, problems of how ugly they looked, how big they were or how skinny they were," she said.

These young writers spoke of calorie-reducing tricks, including feeding their dinners to their pet dogs and turning up their stereos to drown out the sound of their vomiting. They wrote about chocolate as a threat. They blamed the media, like music videos or teen magazines. Some blamed teasing by peers and boys at school. Ultimately some of these young women blamed and punished themselves. Despite these weighty issues, many of the young writers have retained a sense of humor that has helped them to survive.

Some of the essays are stories of hope, while others arise from a litany of pain. Many women twice the age of the teenagers, have yet to learn the wisdom and insight these young writers share.

The picture on the cover of Body Images is of a young woman changing into a butterfly. The Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women reported that they used the image because women often change as they mature.

"We look and we learn who we are and hopefully we can all learn to cope with pressures about our own beauty," said Torres. "Our goal at [the institute] is for young women to feel strong, that they can be happy with the bodies they have, that our bodies are beautiful, our bodies take us everywhere," she said.

"We have received a good response from the book. We have gotten comments from B.C. and Nova Scotia. We printed the book last October. When we had the books out for the first time at our annual conference in Sudbury in October, in a short time we sold 100 of the books there" said Torres. "We are receiving orders every day. Our organization at the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women does research on issues that affect women. We are always looking for ways to make sure we respond to the needs of all women.

"At this moment we are distributing this book out of our office in Ottawa. We are also presently marketing out books with teachers associations, physical educators and health educators," she said.

The book also contains a resource section regarding books, videos, web sites, educational kits and organizations.

The Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women created this project to start girls talking. Out of the 600 writers, two were chosen to receive a $2,000 bursary each. Celebrity judges included singer-songwriter, Jann Arden, publisher, Sharlene Azam, actress, Tina Keeper, Olympic medalist, Silken Laumann and journalist, Irshad Manji. Kellogg's Special K, which has been promoting healthy body images through advertisements as seen on TV and in Chatelaine magazine and other publications, provided the bursaries.

"With this type of book we just want to say to young women that we are beautiful just as we are. We do not have to be a certain way to be happy or to be loved, or even to love others," said Torres. "We should treat our bodies well. Not just the young women, but all women. This is an issue that not only touches one person, but that it happens to a lot of us," she said.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gladue, Yvonne Irene
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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