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New film profiles self-image

Jenn Metz | Monday, March 2, 2009

The film “America the Beautiful” was shown to a sold-out audience Sunday afternoon at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. Last week, its organizers were afraid no one would show up.

The movie is not about patriotic songs, as its title suggests, but rather about issues of female body image in a society where “celebutantes” like Paris Hilton and stick-thin models dominate the media.

Valerie Staples, an eating disorders specialist at the University, said “America the Beautiful” is “a film that will bring a lot of awareness of how much influence the media and advertising have on eating disorders.”

On Wednesday, she checked with the ticket office at the Center to see how many seats had been reserved, just to make sure people were coming.

Advertisements for the film featured an image of the Statue of Liberty with notes like “Widen mouth,” “Enlarge eyes,” and “Two words: Nose job!” with arrows pointing at the body parts they described.

Images of “perfection and ideal standards” that bombard men and women through the media have led to a decrease in self-esteem, she said.

“We need to step back, and look at these things objectively,” Staples said. “Who said this is beautiful?”

She said she hoped the film would challenge the origins of beauty standards in American society.

The film, recommended by the Academy for Eating Disorders, a professional organization to which Staples belongs, has been shown internationally and at other universities across the nation, like Princeton.

“Notre Dame students have a lot of passion and energy they can generate for change when standing behind a social movement,” Staples said. “We want to ignite that passion behind this issue.”

Staples, who came to the University as an eating disorders specialist in 2001, said treatment for eating disorders has been available to students on campus before that time through a collaboration with offices like Health Services and the Athletic Department.

Though there are many different varieties of eating disorders, they are defined at the most basic level as having one thing in common, according to literature released by the Counseling Center: “the normal pattern of eating when you are hungry and no longer eating when you are full is disrupted.”

They are more than just a problem with food, and can lead to serious problems in major areas of a person’s life, due to the person’s focus on weight, food and body image, according to the literature.

The media is not the cause, per se, of eating disorders, Staples said, but it is certainly one of the contributing factors.

“It can’t be the main factor,” she said. “We all live in the same society, but not everyone has an eating disorder.”

Though the number of people who suffer from a clinical eating disorder might not represent the entire population, “it’s hard to find a woman, who at some point in her life hasn’t spent time thinking about [her body],” Staples said. “It’s really kind of a waste.”

Figures illustrating the percentage of students on campus who suffer from eating disorders are not available on campus, Staples said, though she offered some analysis of reported cases.

Staples said in about 10 percent of reported cases of eating disorders, the clients are male. That figure has increased over the years, she said, naming participants in athletics where weight is a requirement and males in the spotlight as those at higher risk for developing an eating disorder.

Women, she said, tend to want to make their bodies smaller and reshape them through dieting and exercise, while men’s body image concern tends to be the opposite: “They often want to bulk up, obtain bigger muscles through increased workouts.”

Professionals use the “Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-IV) to assess and diagnose eating disorders; three of the most-seen varieties include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

According to the literature provided by the Counseling Center, Anorexia nervosa is characterized “by a refusal to maintain a minimally normal body weight,” “an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight,” “an undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation,” “and for women, the absence of at least three consecutive menstrual cycles.”

Bulimia nervosa is characterized “by recurrent episodes of binge eating,” or eating an amount of food significantly larger than most people would eat under similar circumstances, “the use of recurrent inappropriate compensatory behaviors in order to prevent weight gain, including self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives/diuretics/enemas/medications,” “and/or excessive exercise.”

Binge eating disorder is characterized “by recurrent episodes of binge eating in the absence of the regular use of inappropriate compensatory behaviors that are characteristic of bulimia nervosa,” according to the literature.

Staples said, across the board, the three types of eating disorders defined “are pretty well distributed” among the cases reported that meet the diagnostic criteria.

She said bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, which are more disruptive and interfere more with daily life, show an increased number of clients seeking help.

Anorexia nervosa, on the other hand, is not less prevalent, but fewer people who suffer from the eating disorder seek treatment because they may have lost a lot of weight and received positive reinforcement about their body changes, Staples said.

When treating these cases, Staples said “the most important thing is helping each student feel you are about them … and creating a relationship where they do not feel judged.”

Those suffering from eating disorders should know they are not defined by their behaviors, Staples said.

“That’s all they see about themselves … [in treatment] their world gets a little bit bigger and they see there are aspects to them besides their behaviors,” she said.

Most importantly, treatment offers a sense of hopefulness “that things can get better,” she said.

Anecdotally Staples said the number of cases of eating disorders reported at Notre Dame are probably comparable with the figures at other institutions, but there are some contributing factors for eating disorders at the University for both men and women.

Staples said she has noted an increase in the number of men and women coming to the University having had eating disorders in the past, which creates “unique challenges.”

“They have been in treatment before, and Notre Dame is an environment of high achievers. It may be difficult for them to reach out and ask for help and acknowledge that it’s a problem,” Staples said.

The fact children develop eating disorders at younger and younger ages marks a cultural shift, Staples said. When she first started in the field, she said her clients were mostly in their mid-20s and older, but while working in a private practice before coming to Notre Dame, she said she treated a client as young as eight years old.

“When I grew up, ” she said, “the messages in the media were not as strong. The pressures to succeed begin at so much younger of an age, children’s time is scheduled.”

The showing of “America the Beautiful,” a free but ticketed event, had the purpose of starting a dialogue, Staples said.

The director of the film, Darryl Roberts, was present for a question and answer session.

Staples said she hoped students in the audience would “question their own beliefs but start recognizing how we’ve internalized that it’s easy to communicate about losing weight.”

The language we use on a day-to-day basis, she said, like calling ourselves or others “fat,” contributes to the problem.

“On an individual basis, there are ways we can make a difference. There is a way to talk about our bodies and food to engage in that discussion,” she said.