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Exhibit a worthwhile experience despite disturbing nature

Staff Editorial | Friday, September 18, 2009

Go and see “Thin” by Lauren Greenfield.

Some believe these images are art.

Some believe these images raise awareness for a widespread social problem.

Some believe these images are exploitive and simply a cheap shock tactic used to gain attention.

Whichever camp you fall in – or maybe it is a combination of all three – go and see the exhibit because the images of these women are real.

The exhibit, displayed by the Snite Museum of Art from Aug. 2 – Oct. 18, has garnered attention on campus and has received both criticism and praise for the images of females suffering from eating disorders.

Greenfield took most of the photographs at the Renfrew Center, a treatment facility for individuals with eating disorders from 2004 to 2006.

“While following their individual stories, the documentary investigates the process of treatment, the culture of rehab, the cycle of addiction and the unique relationships, rules and rituals that define everyday life within the institution that is their temporary home,” Greenfield says of the project on her Web site. “What emerges is a portrait of an illness that is frustrating in its complexity and tenacity, and shattering in the pain it inflicts on its sufferers and their loved ones.”

The Renfrew Center has 10 facilities nationwide. Greenfield collected the material for the exhibit at the facility in Coconut Creek, Fla.

The material in the exhibit is dealt with honestly and sensitively. The women tell their stories, and their accounts are displayed next to their photographs. The viewer can then read about the experiences of the women in the photographs, giving the sometimes-shocking images a context.

The exhibit is disturbing. The artist confronts the viewer with images and stories of women that cut themselves. The women detail their near-paralyzation, hair loss, diarrhea and the severe emotional problems associated with their eating disorders. It is ugly and disconcerting, but it is true.

Yet some of the photographs and stories in the exhibit are hopeful. Greenfield does not simply display images of emaciated girls for the sake of shocking her audience. She also displays the entire process of the eating disorder, including the recovery stages.

Some photos show the progress of women who have gone through treatment at Renfrew and are approaching a healthy weight. Some of the women talk about how they are recovering because of the treatment they received and are gradually learning to accept their body.

So while students may not agree with the display of images of anorexic and bulimic girls, there is undeniably something to learn from this exhibit.

The National Eating Disorders Association estimates 10 million females and one million males are fighting a life-and-death battle with an eating disorder, generally anorexia or bulimia.

Greenfield states on her Web site that eating disorders affect one in seven American women.

At Notre Dame, of the students who seek help at the University Counseling Center, 10.3 percent list eating disorders and/or body image concerns as their reason for seeking help, according to Valerie Staples, coordinator of Eating Disorder Services at the Center.

As eating disorders are a problem both nationally and on campus, gaining a better understanding of the disorders only yields a better-educated and more sensitive student body.

Regardless of Greenfield’s method, the exhibit is a way for students to educate themselves about the reality of eating disorders.

Some photographs are shocking, but they are a reality that plagues the women in the photographs as well as students on campus.

So go and read about women who fought an eating disorder. See photographs of these women, empathize with them and learn about the problem.