Body Talk

In an image-conscious city, educators try to inject a little reality into the discussion

Five years ago, Cortney Warren, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, moved to Las Vegas to start a body image and eating disorder lab while teaching at UNLV. She was interested in the ways that body image and eating disorders are manifested in this image-conscious city. Not long after she settled in, Ann Marie Perone approached Warren. Perone, who is a health teacher at Valley High School and also educates teachers in the Clark County School District about issues surrounding eating disorders and body image, was alarmed by the negative body talk she heard coming from her students daily. To address the issue, she started a club called Body Rocks, and she asked Warren to come to the school and talk to the kids.

It turned into a two-year engagement. Warren spoke to all of the ninth-grade health classes about body image perceptions and misconceptions, how students feel about the way they look, and the media’s portrayal of gender roles in magazines, newspapers, television and the Internet.

“I talked to them about the reality of the media—that the messages they see aren’t actually true, aren’t actually real. They’re edited and they’re extreme,” she says, referring to the predominately white, ultra-thin, airbrushed celebrities and models that surround us at the newsstand and elsewhere.

In the process, Warren conducted a study of her own. She focused on more than 200 Latino teens to see how they were affected by images of thin people in the media. The Latino culture has always considered a curvier, more feminine female body the ideal, as opposed to the super skinny look that Caucasians lean toward. Warren wanted to see if that was true in these youth.

She found that the kids she studied were just as susceptible to body image issues and eating disorders as their Caucasian counterparts. “The more the Hispanic kids compare themselves to media images, the more likely they were to have eating disorder symptoms. The more they aspired to look like mainstream media, the more eating disorder symptoms they reported,” she says.

Her findings were published in the September issue of Sex Roles: A Journal of Research.

Perone, who sees these issues constantly at Valley High School, isn’t surprised by the findings. In her Body Rocks club, she works with nearly 75 students to try to raise self-esteem and direct them to focus on areas other than physical appearance. The club sponsors themed events such as End Fat Talk Day, Love Your Body Day, Makeup-Free Monday, Eating Disorders Awareness Week and more. Still, Perone is the first to admit that more needs to be done.

“Nobody wants to talk about eating disorders. They’ve got every program for drugs and alcohol, but when it comes to eating disorders and body image they’ve got nothing,” she says.

Perone says that Warren’s program, which ran during the 2007 and 2008 school years, helped her students a great deal and opened a dialogue about the taboo topic. But without funding from the school district, there’s only so much Warren and others can do.

“If we don’t educate and this isn’t seen more in the media, other than celebrities in the media getting thin or getting fat, the situation is just going to worsen for our population,” Perone says.

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