Truth and Consequences

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

The Woman placed her hands palms down on the table, as if anticipating a manicure.”Look at these old things,” she said.”I can count 27 wrinkles between my wrist and my first knuckle.”

The horizontal lines were mere whispers of indentations, disappearing as she moved or splayed her fingers.They looked natural and appropriate for her 58 years.

“But see what happens now,” she said, as she turned her hands over.”These are the same palms I had when I was 12—no more lines, no fewer. What am I supposed to do? Go around like a supplicant? Shake hands upside down?”

The woman spoke with self-denigrating humor and wistful resignation. A slim, fit woman with short steel-gray hair, she had taken her looks for granted, until recently. She claimed she had never been one to obsess about her body image, especially as she watched what she ate and exercised with some regularity.

Now, however, she noticed small changes in her body, and they were affecting how she felt—about herself, and about her relationships with others.

“Face it. I’m getting older, and I don’t like it a bit,” she said. “My hands are just one part of it. Sometimes, when I catch my reflection in a mirror, I’m shocked to see a stranger. I plaster on a phony smile just to rearrange my sagging features into a face I can recognize. And, getting out of the shower in front of the bathroom mirror—let’s not even go there.”

“Whatever happened to aging with dignity?” she lamented.

It might be easy to dismiss this woman’s concerns as superficial, given the state of the world, serious health issues, and the economy. And, admittedly, in this context, her concerns seem relatively unimportant. But is she any different from most women in our society? Don’t we all want to feel good about ourselves—whatever that takes—in order to do our jobs, to fulfill our relationships, to interact with others in a youth- and weight-obsessed society?

The Good News is that women are encouraged, as never before, to exercise, eat correctly, and value one another for the right reasons, not because we fit into a size 4, have a Nicole Kidman nose, or an Olympic gymnast or swimmer’s body (and who among us could actually achieve that?).

One alumna, the Rev. Shannon A. Kimbell-Auth ’90, commented, in response to our online questionnaire (see right): “Having a positive body image for me is about having a realistic understanding of where my health is at any given time. Fat is fat—a positive body image doesn’t gloss over the health concern, I just understand that my worth isn’t wrapped up in my weight or appearance.” She added:”We are all out of balance. A right balance incorporates body, mind, and spirit. Our bodies are not who or what we are, they are simply where we reside at this moment, which is a brief time in the face of eternity.”

But, finding the right balance in this life on earth that falls somewhere between unhealthy indifference and equally unhealthy obsession is an ongoing challenge.

What most of us know—that the most important things in life have little to do with looks—does not always overcome other voices in our head that combine to make us feel we could be better than we are, and that it’s our fault if we fail to reach society’s ever-changing vision of perfection.

Carol Otis ’71, M.D., a physician in sports medicine, is one of many Scripps alumnæ who are concerned, both personally and professionally, with what societal pressures are doing to women of all ages today.

“I find that the pressures on young women to be valued and judged by their appearance have always been present in society, but are increasing now,” she said. “The image of the ideal body is usually the difficult-to-attain body. It changes quickly and is fueled by the pace of life and widespread penetration of media and Internet. Women are directed to try to attain the unrealistic body image from the media, and the multi-billion-dollar fashion industry, family, and from trying to conform to their peer group.”

On college campuses today, including Scripps, women’s attire often mimics the Brittany Spears look: low-slung pants and bare, pierced midriff. “It is an unusual and rare body type who can wear that look,” said Otis. “Young women are so influenced by the fashion industry and the limited choices in stores that they choose a look based on current cultural ideals, not on what their body type is or the clothing that best suits their body.”

Otis tries to help women understand what their genetically determined body type is and to learn to dress for and celebrate that. She believes that key to the Scripps experience is building self-esteem from who you are not what you look like.”The fashion and beauty industry would have us believe, and therefore make purchases, to try to be a different body and appearance,” she said. “The basic body types cannot be changed irrespective of what diet or supplement a person takes.”

When Otis and her classmates were at Scripps in the late 60s and early 70s, they were encouraged to be “our own unique selves and celebrate our natural bodies, not the fashion ideal. It was an important and vital part of my development and has helped me withstand the changing cultural pressures.”

Another alumna, Sharon Snyder ’90, owner of Bumblebee Fitness in the San Francisco Bay Area, works primarily with larger-sized women (sizes 16 and up) to develop positive body image by reaching their fitness and wellness goals.”I want them to experience joy and pleasure in moving their bodies—not judgment or shame, which are so common.”

Snyder talks about the media hysteria and the so-called “obesity epidemic”: “It’s as though the media has declared open season on fat people. I wish we focused more on physical activity and nutritional choices.” She remembers feeling personally defensive when she was heavier. “People treated me with hostility just because I was heavy. I see that defensiveness in some people who are feeling the onslaught of the ‘war on fat.'”

In her work, Synder has found that women do not, as a whole, become more realistic (or resigned) about their bodies as they grow older. “I haven’t found acceptance to be age-related, any more than maturity is age-related. I think acceptance, or realism about our bodies, is impacted by our intimate relationships;surely having a partner who is genuinely loving and accepting can have a tremendous impact, just as having a partner who is judgmental and cruel can affect our self-esteem.”

Synder has her thoughts, too, on societal pressures: “I think it’s important to realize that consumerism is based on the principle that people (especially women) must feel inadequate in some way, and then must believe that a product will make us OK. If we are, what would happen to the weight-loss industry? Can you imagine how many plastic surgeons would be out of work if women started loving our noses just the way they are? Our bellies? Our thighs? Our breasts?”

Other alumnæ, such as Nancie Carollo ’92, are devoted to helping women (and men) work through and overcome lifethreatening body issues. Carollo, a nationally certified specialist in rehabilitative and restorative massage, works with patients recovering from eating disorders, who usually have low self worth as well as a negative body image. “My role is to help patients become embodied, to accept themselves by allowing another human to connect with them in a way that feels safe. It often involves baby steps, perhaps touching only the hands or feet at first. Acceptance of touch can lead to feelings of self worth, empowering the patient to let go of their attachment to the disorder.” She describes the results of her work as “learning to like yourself enough to let someone touch you.”

What is Happening at Scripps to help women develop a positive body image?

Several disciplines at the College—anthropology, art and art history, women’s studies, and the Core, to name just a few—promote discussion of body image and examine societal issues and pressures, as well as representation of women’s bodies in art and the media, and encourage student research. Residence advisers also sponsored “Love Your Body” week last fall, with art exhibits, guest lectures, and other activities.

Thus, body image and all its ramifications is a subject of strong interest to many students, on an academic, as well as personal level. Misha Kalan is writing her senior thesis on the subject of cosmetic surgery with the working title:”Real Women, Fake Breasts. “With a major in Science,Technology & Society, she plans to look at the history of the perception of “beauty” and “ideal form” in relation to changes in technology, as well as the history of the cosmetic surgery industry.”I want to look at how women in society today feel about cosmetic surgery as a ‘fix’ for problems in their lives, versus how women felt a century ago,” she explains. She remembers having long debates in her Core classes about body image and the impact of societal pressure to adopt the ideal form in order to have power in society as a woman. In her Core III class with Professor John Geerken,”Self and Society in the Renaissance,” Kalan and Kaitie Brovsky created a Renaissance-era fashion magazine for women that focused on altering one’s own appearance to gain power as a woman at that time. Kalan discovered “how easily language may be used to manipulate the reader into believing that not only is she not good enough, but she will be good enough only if she buys the products and uses the services advertised in the magazine.”

At Monsour Counseling Center, for all students at The Claremont Colleges, staff provide a range of services to help students in many areas of their lives, including developing a positive body image.

Monsour offers individual counseling as well as a 12-week therapy group titled,”Making Peace With Your Body.”The group program is designed for students who feel frustrated with their body image or eating behaviors and would like to develop greater self-acceptance, awareness, and healthy coping strategies in a supportive setting. According to Monsour’s Deborah Edelman-Blank, Psy.D,”Group counseling is an excellent way to improve one’s body image because members can learn and gain support from each other.”

Edelman-Blank believes that most female college students begin to think negatively about their bodies long before they start college.”However,” she said, “it seems that the college environment has the potential to intensify negative body image due to the inherent social, developmental, and academic pressures of college life.”This is a serious concern, she emphasizes, because negative body image often reflects or contributes to damaged self esteem.”Sometimes, damaged self-esteem can encourage the development of more serious mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, or eating disorders.”

Both Edelman-Blank and her colleague Elizabeth Gayed, Ph.D., report that they have a high percentage of students with body image concerns or disordered eating in their total case loads. Yet Gayed offers a few words of optimism:”I am hopeful that seeing more men and women with body image/eating concerns on my caseload may signify that there is a growing awareness in the college community that these concerns are real, serious, and need to be addressed.

Edelman-Blank said that several women she has seen have told her that they feel “liberated” once they have developed a positive body image and embraced their right to decide for themselves what is beautiful. “While initially the term ‘liberation’may seem like an exaggeration,” she said, “it is easy to see how this term is appropriate in this context. If one were to add up the number of minutes women spend looking in the mirror and being disappointed; looking at peers and feeling jealous because they are thinner; seeing movie stars in films and magazines and feeling envious because they are skinnier; wearing clothes that are uncomfortable in an effort to look tinier—I would guess that many women spend hours daily thinking negatively about their bodies. Removing these thought patterns from one’s mind and replacing them with positive, affirming, accepting messages can, indeed, be a liberating experience.”

A positive body image is certainly enhanced at Scripps through athletic endeavors—in physical education classes, on sports teams, and through recreational activities. This mind/body connection will receive even more focus when the new recreation and athletic facility is completed on campus (see story, page 10) and Scripps women have state-of-the-art facilities for fitness and health on their own campus.

One of the many ongoing physical programs at Scripps that promotes positive body image is the Dance Program. Professors Ronnie Brosterman and Gail Abrams concur that diversity in body types is “most definitely” encouraged and supported in the Scripps Dance Program, primarily because the core of the program is centered around modern dance.”Modern dance has always celebrated individuality and uniqueness around dancers,” Abrams said, “and its origins come from a rejection of ballet’s overly codified movement vocabulary, idealization of femininity, and emphasis on lightness and grace as the preferred movement qualities for women to aspire to.

“I believe that everyone can be a dancer,” added Abrams. “Finding one’s ‘movement voice’ is a journey of discovery that transcends a narrow definition of an ‘ideal body.'”

Brosterman believes that dancing is more about how effectively the body channels energy to produce motion (and emotion) than about the dancer’s external image. From the beginning to advanced levels, she says that students are challenged to accept and honor their bodies for the amazing instruments they are. “We feel our graduates carry a healthy attitude toward the body and a respect for the mind/body connection into whatever they do—be it teaching, therapy, social work, choreography, or parenting,” she said.

Brosterman, who studied with Balanchine, talked about the “Balanchine Body Trend”—i.e., skeletal, emaciated, long limbs— and whether or not this image was promoted in dance today, particularly at the college level.

“Many people, not just dancers, are obsessed with being thinner, to the detriment of their mental and physical health. At Scripps, I am more likely to encounter dancers who have turned their backs on this unhealthy aspect of the ballet world either because their natural body build would not permit them to advance further into the profession or because they had become sick in body and/or mind from sacrificing so much for the art. Some are searching for a more healthy way of relating to dance and the body.”

We come now to a key question, asked by several alumnæ: Is concern with a beautiful body and face a superficial pursuit for women? Sage McRae ’01, a style consultant, addressed this question in an e-mail response:

“It is my career goal to help women be more confident by showing them their own beauty. I think it is asinine and limited to assume that any attention to appearance is somehow against women’s rights, or precludes women from being intelligent, complex individuals. When one of my clients looks in the mirror and sees who she believes herself to be, rather than hiding under the wrong clothing, I am amazed by her new burst of confidence and radiating inner beauty. I see this no matter what her physique may be, what she ate that day, or how often she exercises.”

Words of hope and good advice come from Merrilee Stewart Howard ’70:”By understanding how cultural forces in the media can undermine our own instinctive true feelings about ourselves and those of our sisters, daughters, mothers, and friends, we can work to consciously overcome the superficial messages that often fail to emphasize the strength, connection, wisdom, and insights that women demonstrate daily. Having a healthy relationship with our own bodies can and should reflect the respect and compassion that we feel for ourselves as the extraordinarily competent (but imperfect) women that we are. Our strength and beauty as women is not only skin deep. It is in our hearts and minds as well.”

Another alumna, requesting anonymity, said: “In our culture… female attractiveness is a valued quality. It is difficult to get away from because it is so ingrained a concept. In some ways it is a biologically based bias that affects mating and the propagation of the species.”

She summed up her concern with a question we all might ask: “To what degree do we let it affect us?”