RSO promotes girls’ positive self perception

By Megan McNamara

The Body Image Network, a registered student organization, provides outreach to the campus and community to raise consciousness about the pressures to have a certain body type. They hope individuals will recognize possible struggles and find help sooner, their Web site said.

According to a 2003 study of 4,746 adolescents in health psychology, 57.5 percent of the girls and 32.8 percent of boys reported using unhealthy weight-control behaviors the previous year.

This semester, the Network formed a wellness group that met once a week with 12 randomly selected Urbana Middle School students for 10 weeks in hopes of changing these statistics.

“This is the first time that BIN has done something like this,” said Melanie Marklein, graduate student. “The majority of the group’s efforts have been aimed at UIUC students.”

Six of the students were seventh-grade girls, while the other six were eighth-grade girls.

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“The middle school years compose such a key period of development,” Marklein said. “This is the age when appearance becomes such a major focus of one’s self-evaluation and self-concept, especially for girls. It’s very important that seventh and eighth grade girls receive the education and tools they need to combat unhealthy messages that self-worth and happiness are based on beauty and that beauty requires being unrealistically thin.”

Three University students – Lydia Wukasch, sophomore in LAS, Julie LeCleir, senior in LAS, and Ashley Forsythe, freshman in LAS – led the wellness group, along with Terri Medwed, a counselor at Urbana Middle School. It is important that the girls interact with the University students, as they serve as positive role models for the students, Medwed said.

“Each week we deal with a different topic related to body image, such as lifestyle, health, media portrayal of young girls and self-esteem,” she said. “We’re trying to get them to develop a rapport with themselves and their bodies to get them to think positively. This is not a weight-loss group – we don’t advocate diets; developing a long-term healthy lifestyle is the ultimate goal.”

Instead of dieting, the group discussed exercise and healthy eating.

“I liked when we talked about fitness because I like to work out,” said Crystal Compton, Urbana Middle School student.

The wellness group discussed how to identify eating behaviors.

“We don’t construct elaborate nutrition guides, though – we’re not instructing on that level,” Marklein said. “It’s more like what’s going on in your mind while you’re eating: are you eating because you’re happy, because you’re sad, because you’re hungry, because you’re bored?”

The middle school girls reacted strongly during the two sessions the group spent on body image in the media.

“The girls liked the sessions on the media,” Medwed said. “We showed how the media’s portrayals are very unrealistic.”

One week the group asked the girls to find positive and negative magazine advertisements.

“We showed them the effects of digital editing … showing how the media airbrushes blemishes right off skin,” LeCleir said. “It isn’t what they look like in real life. This really struck a chord with them.”

The group asked the girls who they admired and why; the girls did not once mention appearance. This technique helped them realize our culture’s superficialities – it’s substance, not looks that matter.