Combating the Thin Ideal

What do you see when you look in the mirror? Are you satisfied with the reflection? Maybe your arms could be thinner or your nose could be straighter. Maybe your lips could be slightly fuller or your ears might not protrude as far from your head. Maybe you could have less around your stomach or a smaller chin. Or maybe your body is perfect just the way it is.

words by Carlos Anchondo
photos by Jeanna Goodrich Balreira & Anh-Viet Dinh

For nearly 15 years, the Body Project has combated the societal pressures that force adolescent girls and young women to conform to the thin ideal. To decrease body dissatisfaction, negative dieting habits, bulimic symptoms, and the internalization of the thin ideal, the Body Project has operated based on the theory of cognitive dissonance, or a situation in which a person’s beliefs and actions are misaligned resulting in a psychological feeling of discomfort. To restore balance, the Body Project asks participants to act against society’s perception of the ideal body.

In 2001, psychology professor Carolyn Becker had been on the faculty at Trinity University for just less than two years. At the time, she considered herself more of a treatment researcher and was heavily involved in the study of post-traumatic stress disorder in collaboration with a colleague at Dartmouth Medical School. Becker also searched for a meaningful research topic closer to her Trinity home. One day, sitting with student Katie Jilka ’01, the pair discussed body image and eating disorder prevention programs. They decided the subject matter would make an interesting topic for Jilka’s thesis. Diving into the literature, Becker and Jilka found an article written by Eric Stice, now a senior research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute, that tested a dissonance-based, targeted preventive intervention.

To replicate Stice’s study, Becker and Jilka turned to the local sororities at Trinity. In the first year, the study included just 25 women. At the program’s end, participants were asked what they thought of the experience and the response was unanimous: Offer the program to more sorority members. After a second study, published in the journal Behavioral Therapy, participation grew, and sorority members asked that the program become a mandatory part of their orientation calendar for new actives.

“Many people think that I started working with local sororities because they had body image problems, but that’s not true at all,” Becker says. “I started working with the local sororities because together they represent the largest body of organized women on campus and that gives them power.”

Demand meant administering the Body Project to more than 100 sorority members at one time. Confronted with scalability concerns, Becker and her psychology undergraduate researchers adopted a “peer leaders” model where students became the group facilitators. Becker and her students became the first to demonstrate that it was feasible to task-shift Body Project delivery from either a doctoral provider or graduate student to an undergraduate.

As an undergraduate, psychology major Lisa Smith-Kilpela ’04 helped Becker develop the peer leader approach. A co-leader, she marveled at how the Body Project brought the sororities, each with its own distinct personality, together to stand up against the thin ideal.

“It was an extraordinarily empowering experience to see so many women thinking critically about the message society is sending and to challenge it in a way that is really beneficial,” says Smith-Kilpela, now an assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Since the initial Body Project study in 2001, sorority women at Trinity have given an estimated 26,000 hours of unpaid, volunteer time. Thus far, 19 students have co-authored publications related to the Body Project. With Trinity as the testing laboratory, Becker expanded the Body Project to a national scale in 2005.

Approached by Delta Delta Delta, or Tri Delta, for a pilot partnership, the Body Project evolved into the Reflections: Body Image Program. To promote Reflections, a 2008 launch of Fat Talk Free Week dissuaded people from talking negatively about anyone’s body, including their own. From 2008 to 2012, Becker and the Reflections program reached 100 universities nationwide and distributed more than 2,000 manuals and 15,000 workbooks. In this partnership, Becker created a train-the-trainers model that enables newly educated trainers to go out and teach future leaders. After an amicable parting of ways with Tri Delta in 2012, Becker says her relationship with that organization succeeded because of the lessons learned through the Trinity sororities.

“With our local sororities we used community participatory research, which includes things like recognizing communities as entities with identities and values,” Becker says. “You work with a community’s strengths as opposed to highlighting its weaknesses.”

When Becker’s partnership with Tri Delta ended, she and Stice co-founded the Body Project Collaborative, a social entrepreneurship firm. They designed the business to be sustainable, with trainers deployed to colleges nationwide to teach even more trainers, thus eliminating the need to rehire the Body Project Collaborative in the future. A trainer spends two full days at each campus training campus staff and students to run the evidence-based peer educator program. A partnership with The Eating Recovery Center Foundation allows the Body Project Collaborative to offer its program to universities for as little as $500. Acutely involved in Becker’s clinical psychology lab as an undergraduate, Christina Verzijl ’14 believed so adamantly in the Body Project mission that she established the Body Project 4 High Schools (BP4HS) to combat the thin ideal in San Antonio high schools. To facilitate the program and to pay her own salary, Verzijl began fundraising and has raised over $32,000 to date. Verzijl’s goal is to create a more accepting environment on high school campuses and decrease body dissatisfaction.

“A lot of times, people assume that because they do not look like society’s ideal, then they aren’t healthy or aren’t the way they are supposed to be,” Verzijl says. “In fact, every person’s body is different, and so ‘healthy’ for each body is going to look different.”

Free of charge to the high schools, BP4HS currently operates locally in San Antonio at Alamo Heights, St. Mary’s Hall, Keystone, Judson, Lee, and the International School of the Americas. Since its inception, Verzijl has had 298 students, female and male, participate in the program. Six 45-minute sessions or four 1-hour sessions are incorporated into students’ schedules. BP4HS uses the same materials as the standard Body Project, with specific language designed for high schoolers. Each group session is a safe space for participants to discuss body-related insecurities and to think of behavioral changes that will improve their body image, like refraining from using negative “body talk” to describe their own or someone else’s body.

For Verzijl, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, one of the reasons she founded BP4HS was to be a role model for young women. Verzijl says that every time she leads a session she is inspired by participants.

“I want to be the person who can help people love themselves now,” Verzijl says. “I wanted to take all that I had learned at Trinity and bring it to the community that made me the human that I am today.”

Zachary Speer ’15 served as Verzijl’s practicum student and facilitated the male-only groups for BP4HS. Now a part-time employee who fundraises to support his position, Speer was originally a participant. He later became involved as a peer leader because the program made him realize the consequences each gender’s actions can have on the other and because he believes in a safe space where “all of those issues can be put on the table.”

“It all comes down to respect and having a conversation about the unrealistic appearance ideal,” Speer says. “Leading this program, I feel like I am doing something on campus that is truly good for a lot of people.”

As BP4HS focuses on body image acceptance on the local level, the Body Project Collaborative is leaving a global footprint. In 2011, the Dove Self-Esteem Project, in cooperation with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), partnered for a body confidence program known as Free Being Me. Using the Body Project as the basis for their program, the Dove variant ran its first global WAGGGS training in 2013 with Becker and Phillippa Diedrichs, University of the West of England Bristol, at the helm. So far, Free Being Me has been translated into 17 languages and has been implemented in 120 countries, reaching 2.3 million girls directly and indirectly.

Becker says it has been amazing to watch the Body Project grow and admits that she never thought it would be this successful. And while she says that none of this was ever planned, she credits the Body Project’s success to the power of the local Trinity sororities. A beloved mentor to her undergraduate researchers, Becker does believe that she is moving the needle on society’s thin ideal and, although it may seem an unattainable goal, Becker relishes the challenge.

“I like impossible,” Becker says. “I’m not a create-the-wheel person, but I’ll drive it through the muck and the mud to see if it falls apart.”