A Possible Prevention Tool Comes Out of the Closet

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A Possible Prevention Tool Comes Out of the Closet

“I’m really proud of what I’ve become; it has been a transformation. I didn’t think I was pretty before, and now I think I am. I’m excited for the future and going out into the world with my new look.” This comment was made by Joy, a 22-year-old woman who was selected by the producers of The Learning Channel’s popular TV program,What Not to Wear, to receive suggestions on how to develop a flattering style for her body type. Throughout the series, the hosts repeat the claim: you can work with the body you have, instead of trying to change it. One does not have to lose weight or take more drastic measures. Joy closed with the comment, “I think this experience has empowered me in a big way. I feel like I can conquer the world now.”

A number of educational prevention programs have been developed to help girls feel confident and empowered, such as Just for Girls, (Friedman), Healthy Body Image, (Kater), Full of Ourselves, (Steiner-Adair/Sjostrom), and Everybody’s Different (O’Dea). These programs have shown great promise for increasing knowledge, changing attitudes, and altering negative behaviors; however, they do not explore the topic of clothing and its impact on body image. The average teenage girl now sees 3,000 ads per day, with the largest percentage being devoted to appearance. Girls internalize the message that they do not fit the ideal and must change to be successful and happy, but studies suggest that girls and women who spend more time on appearance-related activities actually feel worse. Consequently, prevention programs have been wary about introducing discussions on grooming and fashion for fear of doing harm.

This ignores the elephant in the room. Girls entering middle school become more focused on their appearance, not less. Many want to look good more than they want to feel good or do good. The media cannot be their only source of information on normative grooming and style. Multiple studies have shown that girls feel worse about their appearance after having looked at fashion magazines for just 15 minutes, but a body of research exists that speaks to the possibility that women feel better if theythink they look better. If a girl likes how she looks in clothes, it is possible that her body image and self-esteem will improve, regardless of her size and shape.

If a girl likes how she looks in clothes, it is
possible that her body image and self-esteem
will improve, regardless of her size.

Young girls can be taught this concept in a neutral manner that normalizes the differences in body types. Rather than describing bodies in relation or in contrast to the “ideal” figure, the various body types can be identified in the impartial vocabulary of geometry (How I Look Journal, 2007). Girls can then learn the geometry of how to draw attention to the features they like. In Thomas Cash’s effective program for body image improvement, (The Body Image Workbook, 1997), Step one recommends identifying and learning to appreciate one’s physical assets. Employing the most basic fashion rule, “the eye will travel to wherever you place a line,” can be a constant visual affirmation of one’s assets. The basic geometric rules never change, which gives girls the tools to adapt as their bodies change and places the choice about what to emphasize in their own hands. This is an empowering concept. It becomes an exercise in changing perceptions (how we look at ourselves) as much as an actual change in appearance. Most of us have experienced the insecurities that result in multiple clothing changes before going out the door; acquiring this knowledge may result in less time spent on appearance, rather than more. Additionally, by developing a personal style, girls may gain the confidence to resist peer pressure and clothing-related relational aggression, shown recently to account for 30 percent of bullying in middle school.

A fashion lesson should be just one component of prevention programs that seek to improve body image and empower girls. Young women need to develop a strong sense of self (their inner strengths, talents, and values), improve their media literacy, and their understanding of growth, development, and what comprises a healthy lifestyle. Programs should provide tools for combating relational aggression and positive role models to encourage a focus on leadership and service, rather than appearance.

The young woman quoted at the beginning of the article was nominated by her friends and family because she dressed inappropriately and provocatively. When asked why she did so, she said, “I want to stand out because I don’t stand out any other way.” By the end of show, Joy acquired a tool that made her feel she could conquer the world—and gained self-esteem that transcended what she saw in the mirror.

By Nan Dellheim
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Summer 2008 Volume 6, Number 3
©2008 Gürze Books

About the Author

Nan Dellheim is the co-author of the How I Look Journal with her daughter, Molly Dellheim. The How I Look Journal (vetted by the National Eating Disorders Association and available at gurze.com) provides middle school girls with tools to see their beauty, their power, and their possibilities. Nan and Molly are available for consultations on programming to support the journal. Visit: www.howIlookjournal.com.

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