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Thin exhibit generates discussion

Ann-Marie Woods | Friday, September 18, 2009

Eating disorders affect one in every seven American woman, with as many as 10 million women and one million men fighting the painful psychological and physical effects of the disease, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

In response to this trend and as an assignment for “Time” Magazine, Lauren Greenfield created “Thin,” a collection of interwoven large-scale documentary photographs with accompanying biographical stories and journals.

The traveling exhibition, housed at the Snite Museum of Art until Oct. 18, follows the lives of young women at the Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek, Fla., for the treatment of eating disorders.

The exhibit seeks to expose the reality of the disease while bringing the issue to the public consciousness to spark greater discussion, awareness and understanding, according to Greenfield’s Web site.

“The exhibit brings the subject of eating disorders to the surface where we, as a culture, can begin to deal with this thought-provoking subject in our homes and schools,” the Web site says.

Steve Moriarty, associate professional specialist and curator of photography for the Snite Museum, said the exhibit has particular relevance of this subject matter here on campus.

“When deciding what we will bring to the Snite, we ask the question ‘Is it relevant and will it speak to the audience here?'” Moriarty said. “This exhibit enables dialogue and gets people talking about [eating disorders].”

Greenfield’s work has been displayed at Notre Dame prior to “Thin,” with her documentary exhibit called “Girl Culture,” more general in theme, exploring girls’ relationships with their bodies and popular culture.

“There was enormous response to that exhibit,” Moriarty said, noting the influx of female dorms, therapy groups and classes who used the exhibit to create discussion of the issue.

Greenfield came to speak to students during the first exhibit, explaining her work and the critical problem it addresses, while also answering questions from men and women about body image.

“When she visited here, we had an evening at Saint Mary’s where she came to talk to the girls,” Moriarty said. “When we got there, there were over 200 women, a huge group. She went on stage, pulled up a chair, sat down and said ‘Girls, let’s talk.'”

For Moriarty and Greenfield, this is the objective for an exhibit of this nature – to get people to talk about the issue and come to a greater understanding of the complexity of the problem.

Valerie Staples , the Coordinator of Eating Disorder Services at the University Counseling Center, agreed.

“To me the value is it brings eating disorders to people’s awareness on a different level with more of an emotional connection that draws you in,” Staples said. “It helps people become aware of eating disorders as more than just a superficial thing.”

Given that the exhibit has garnered so much discussion and controversy on campus illustrates the significance of the disease and its prevalence in current culture both here at Notre Dame and globally, she said.

“[The creation of this exhibit obviously speaks to eating disorders and their prevalence,” Staples said. “It resonates with so many people because it’s hard not to be touched by this.”

Of the students who seek help at the counseling center, 10.3 percent list eating disorders and/or body image concerns as the presenting problem. Staples said this is consistent with previous years, with the lowest statistic at 9 percent and the highest at 12 percent.

The exhibit has been the object of both criticism and praise, Moriarty said.

“The question is how do you provide information but don’t encourage?” undergraduate student assistant for the Gender Relations Center Patrick Tighe said. “It is a fine line and we have to be mindful of this, making sure we provide the resources for people to go somewhere and talk about it.”

Moriarty said a visitor’s journal has become a medium for discussion and debate.

“The debate has been interesting with pros and cons, and dialogues between people in the exhibit’s visitor journal,” Moriarty said.

“This is exhibit is NOT ART!” wrote one visitor in the comment book, to which others responded “Yes it is!” and “May I ask what you do consider art?”

“Where are the men?” a respondent in the journal asked.

“Art is something different to every person,” Staples said. “It makes people think and feel something. One of the aspects of being at a university is giving students the opportunity to learn.”

Moriarty said the exhibit is similar to highlighting former exhibits of war, destruction, poverty and death, which are considered art because they are “powerful images that stand together as a whole and have a message.”

“First you have to define art and then see if [the exhibit] fits,” Moriarty said. “No one who has made the argument that it is not art has first defined what art is.”

But Moriarty said an exhibit of this nature is likely to be controversial.

“We were hoping it would elicit discussion, conversation and argument, which it has,” Moriarty said.

He said “Thin” has been well-visited at the Snite over the past few weeks, as the discussion and debate continues over the issues surrounding the exhibit.

“I think it’s really powerful, as people walk through and they’re quiet and that’s a positive thing right there,” Staples said. “It helps people on our campus ask what are some things we can do to help.”

This exhibition was curated by the artist and Trudy Wilner Stack, and was organized by The Women’s Museum: An Institute for the Future, Dallas, Texas, and Greenfield/Evers, LLC.