The Body Positive: Celebrating 20 Years of Successful Activism to End Eating Disorders
By Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott, LCSW
The year was 1997. In the living room of a borrowed home, we gathered with a group of teen girls and spent the day witnessing tears, laughter, and passion as they shared the difficulties they were experiencing living in their bodies, and what they wanted to do about their struggles. It broke our hearts to hear 15-year-old Rebecca’s statement of distress: “I think about the way I look and my stomach probably millions and millions of times a day. I wish for five minutes I could know what it was like to have that model’s body, have those clothes fit me that way just once.”
We had assembled this focus group for a filmed discussion to create a problem statement to share with potential funders in hopes of gaining support for our fledgling nonprofit, The Body Positive. Little did we know at the time that these girls, strangers until that day, were not about to let us just walk away with their stories. “This is the most important thing we’ve ever talked about!” they exclaimed. “We want to help you build your program to make people feel better about their bodies.”
At the time, Connie’s sister, Stephanie, had recently died from a physical illness resulting from faulty breast implants and malnutrition caused by anorexia and bulimia. Connie had struggled with her own eating disorder as a teenager and was fortunate enough to have healed herself in her early 20s. She was adamant about raising her daughter, Carmen, to have self-love, appreciation for her unique body, and positive self-care behaviors. Elizabeth, a psychotherapist early in her career, was overwhelmed with the suffering her young clients faced because of their eating disorders and body hatred. As a social worker, she recognized the need to do something to end the problem, not just treat it.
We were both extremely passionate about creating a world where young people could focus their energy and intellect on what they wanted to do with their precious lives and how they could make a contribution to positive social action. We brought our talents together to build a lively, safe, and healing community that offers freedom from the suffocating messages that keep people in a perpetual struggle with their bodies. We were committed to creating experiences where people find what they need to become embodied: to tell their own truth and step fully into their bodies and lives without fear of judgment, comparison, or criticism. What we learned on that first day was that the most effective way to reach our targeted audience was through peer-to-peer education.
Visit the Stories page on our website to hear Rebecca and others share their experiences with The Body Positive.
The Body Positive is now a preeminent eating-disorders prevention organization that has directly trained thousands of student leaders and staff in high schools and colleges nationwide to establish Body Positive programs on their campuses. This year, to address the growing need for our programs, we offered our first training for professionals (e.g., mental-health and medical professionals, educators, and community activists) to use our multimedia curricula to work with preteens, teens, and adults.
A Model Based on Years of Experience
Our Be Body Positive Model was developed using a feminist dialogical approach in which we asked people how they suffered over their bodies, and what they needed to become free of body dissatisfaction and eating problems.1 We listened to individuals for many, many years and carefully cataloged their responses. We then organized this data into a model and curricula that promote resilience against damaging cultural messages and that lead to excellent self-care.
The next step of our process was to develop our Be Body Positive leadership program and train students to use our curriculum to guide others in finding solutions for their problems. The facilitators were free to adapt the curriculum to make it relevant for the diverse people in their groups. This dialogical inquiry approach is especially powerful in a society that teaches people to look for answers outside of themselves instead of listening to the authority of their own experience; it is what led our work to expand beyond our original focus on teen girls. We’ve created a safe place for people of all ages, sizes, sexual orientations, genders, ethnicities, abilities, and socioeconomic levels. We have done our best to ensure that the messages we teach are inclusive for all by emphasizing each individual’s personal story.
The Be Body Positive Model comprises five core Competencies: Reclaim Health, Practice Intuitive Self-Care, Cultivate Self-Love, Declare Your Own Authentic Beauty, and Build Community. We call them core Competencies because they are the fundamental skills people can practice (emphasis on the word practice) on a daily basis to live peacefully and healthfully in their bodies. These Competencies address the obstacles to healing we’ve unearthed over the years through our work with diverse individuals in schools and treatment settings. Elizabeth uses the same approach with her clients struggling with eating disorders that we use in our prevention work. Our book, Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body (and quiet that critical voice!), brings the Competencies to life through diverse and inspiring stories, and powerful practices that accompany each chapter.
We’ve refined our Be Body Positive Model over the years, with a fierce commitment to avoiding the transmission of messages that place people in double binds, because we know that double binds only lead to confusion, frustration, despair, and feelings of failure. Our model offers a framework for true success, because we define success not as a static end goal of perfection, but as a way of living that allows people to appreciate, care for, protect, and take pleasure in their unique bodies throughout their life span. It honors that human beings will also experience suffering. Instead of beating themselves up for not being perfectly happy with their bodies or lives at all times, people can honor the difficult days as times of learning and growth. And when they do struggle, they can turn toward themselves with kindness and forgiveness, with a reminder that they are only human, and reach out to people in the Body Positive communities they’ve created to support them in coming home to self-love.
- Body Image Disturbance (BID) is a highly prevalent and severe problem among 90 percent of female college students2,3
- BID is a predictor for:
- Low self-esteem
- Alcohol and drug abuse
- Eating disorders
- Unhealthy weight loss behaviors
- Sexual assault2-7
- More than one-half of teenage girls and one-third of teenage boys in America use unhealthy weight-control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, or taking laxatives8
- Eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental illnesses9
Research Shows Profound Impact
“After struggling with an eating disorder freshman year and relapsing again during winter quarter of my sophomore year, becoming a Body Positive facilitator this past spring was the best timing I could ask for. The group helped me realize the huge body-image and self-love problem on the Stanford campus and that I, along with other passionate and committed people, have the power to change it.”
—Be Body Positive Student Leader, Stanford University
In the spring of 2014, we had the opportunity to partner with Stanford University researchers Megan Jones, PsyD, Athena Robinson, PhD, and Kristen Lohse, PsyD candidate, to conduct a pilot study to evaluate the preliminary efficacy, feasibility, and acceptability of the Be Body Positive leadership curriculum for college students. The study was designed to assess the ability of The Body Positive’s peer education program to train student leaders to use the Be Body Positive curriculum and to examine preliminary outcomes related to body dissatisfaction and eating-disorder risk factors among their peers.
The quantitative results of this pilot study demonstrated meaningful positive effects on measures associated with increased resilience against eating and body image problems. Participants reported a reduction in their weight and shape control beliefs, body surveillance, and internalization of the thin ideal, an increase in body satisfaction, and fewer social determinants of poor body image, from baseline to the end of group. For group participants who indicated some disordered eating symptoms at baseline, there were continued improvements on all measures at eight months after the group ended.
This pilot study provided evidence to suggest that those who participate in Be Body Positive groups experience meaningful and positive changes related to eating, body image, and social relationships. Qualitative findings indicated that members felt the groups were a positive source of community, particularly because the leaders were able to adapt the curriculum to fit their diverse communities on campus. Many students also expressed appreciation for the conversations on intuitive exercise, vulnerability, Body Positive sexuality, and challenging the thin ideal, which helped them listen to the authority of their own bodies to guide their decisions and choices.
The Stanford University study results were exciting because the data supported our experience developing the model and our 20 years of community organizing. It was evident throughout the years that our student leaders, our group participants, and Elizabeth’s clients not only got well, but thrived in their lives. In the Stanford study, the Be Body Positive groups were student-led. We never met the participants, and yet they were positively transformed by the experience of peer leaders teaching our curriculum. They overcame their body dissatisfaction and learned to take excellent care of themselves. This was wonderful validation, because it meant powerful change can happen exponentially in a grassroots movement, beyond the limits of our personal time and energy.
“Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow … we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.”
The Be Body Positive Model is confirmed by emerging research in the fields of neuroscience, Buddhist psychotherapy, positive psychology, and attachment theory that shows the human brain’s capacity to learn and rewire positive mental states through individual practice and social contact. We are finding great support for our work in the research conducted by scholars like Brené Brown, Kristin Neff, and Rick Hanson, and the exciting projects happening at the Greater Good Science Center.
Cornell University is now implementing a pilot of our Be Body Positive college leadership program, with students leading groups in five departments on campus. Cornell will replicate the Stanford University research with a larger and more comprehensive study. We are excited to see the results in the spring of 2017.
A Body Positive Success Story
Kathy Laughlin has been the director of counseling at San Domenico High School for 15 years and is starting her eighth year as staff coordinator of her school’s Body Positive peer leadership program. Until 2015, San Domenico was an all-girls boarding and day school, and it is now a coed high school.
“We have a very high-achieving student body who expect a lot of themselves academically, in extracurricular activities (music, sports, arts, etc.), and socially. In 2009, I arranged for The Body Positive to train 10 of my students as Be Body Positive peer leaders. That was the beginning of a truly beautiful relationship and transformation of our school culture.
“I have continued to send students to Be Body Positive trainings over the years. These leaders transform their own relationships with their bodies, and bring the message and Competencies to their fellow students. We have whole-school assemblies every year. The leaders speak to students in various classes, and they explain how each student at San Domenico can be part of the Body Positive movement. We now do a “This Is Beauty” week every year, during which the student leaders write positive messages on windows and mirrors, and spend a day conducting activities that allow all students to express their authentic beauty and to see the beauty in others. Our teachers have been inspired and have developed lesson plans around body acceptance and beauty. Currently, the leaders are enthusiastic about planning weekly drop-in groups where students can have the opportunity to check in about their bodies and relationship with food. My peer leaders have also visited our middle and primary levels to educate the younger students on The Body Positive.
“I have to say that The Body Positive is the most effective program we have implemented in our high school. By the end of each school year, every student can tell you what this amazing program is about. Students walk around, and if they hear anything that is not “body positive,” they remind each other and support each other in a way that is downright remarkable. Since its implementation, I have not seen as many girls with issues related to body hatred in my role as counselor. As you might guess, the risk factors for the girls at my school are high for eating disorders and other self-destructive behaviors. It is comforting to know that we are living in a community that is promoting self-love and actually seeing it play out with the students and faculty. Although I have participated in many trainings with The Body Positive, I must say, each time I go, I walk away more inspired and confident that I am doing my very best for my students by helping to bring this life skill to them.”
The Body Positive Movement
It’s gratifying (and occasionally frightening) to see the Body Positive movement we initiated 20 years ago becoming part of the popular culture. “Body positive” is now common parlance and is used widely in media and in personal conversation. Being “body positive” has become a way to talk about accepting one’s natural body, or to describe the philosophy behind a yoga class or a therapist’s healing modality, or a way to sell other products and services. Not all of the uses of “body positive” are in alignment with our Be Body Positive Model and all that we teach, so it can be confusing to people who don’t know the history of the movement. But we are delighted to see that people all over the world are clearly attracted to the idea that we can think about our bodies in a more liberated way.
With our Be Body Positive leadership training program and curricula successfully researched and being used in more and more schools and community settings, and with our book, Embody, being read by people all over the world, we’re reaching more people than we ever believed possible when we held that first focus group in 1997. The Body Positive is in a powerful position now to inspire and guide this movement in the direction of our mission: to create a world in which people are liberated from self-hatred, value their own authentic beauty and identity, and use their energy and intellect to make positive changes in their own lives and in their communities.
Seeing the profound impact our trained Body Positive student leaders and professionals are having on the lives of others makes all the years of painstaking effort we put into developing and refining our model, trainings, and curricula, and keeping our nonprofit alive, worthwhile. The community of passionate activists that first formed 20 years ago, and has continued to grow ever since, is made up of a widely diverse group of people who have chosen to say yes to doing the often difficult work of loving their “flawed” human selves. They are preventing eating disorders and helping people develop peaceful relationships with their bodies not only through their official work as Body Positive leaders, but simply by the way they live in their own bodies and role-model a joyful relationship with food and movement.
We believe people are tired of the endless effort they put toward attempting to perfect their bodies. The Body Positive offers those who are ready a way to break out of resignation and passivity to find the joy and aliveness that comes with taking positive action to connect with their innate body wisdom. The benefit is balanced, joyful self-care and a relationship with their whole selves that is guided by love, forgiveness, and humor.
A Vision for the Future and an Invitation
We envision The Body Positive’s research-based, student-driven leadership programs becoming institutionalized on high school and college campuses nationwide, supporting the growth of powerful, healthy young adults who will become the next generation of world leaders.
We see primary and secondary schools across the country becoming “body positive” because the adults in charge understand the power of creating safe school environments that help children of all sizes thrive through the adoption of body-oriented social-emotional learning programs that foster students’ positive self-image, healthy self-care practices, and kindness toward others.
We foresee a future in which people of all ages are able to reclaim their health and beauty, and grow in their self-love so they can lead engaged lives and become positive role models for their families and communities.
Who would have guessed that our Body Positive meeting with those young girls in 1997 was the beginning of something that would become a worldwide movement? The members of our first team of trained teen leaders are turning 35 this year, and we have been blessed that many of them have chosen to keep in touch with us throughout the years. What a gift it has been to see how their lives have developed in such positive ways because they were given a safe place and permission to see and honor their whole, powerful selves at an early age. Many are now therapists and social workers, and in professions where they can support others in finding peace living in a human body. A new generation of Body Positive babies is being born. Our founding belief that the human species can evolve by breaking the cycle of passing body hatred from generation to generation is now in motion.
We welcome you to join The Body Positive movement today. Please take a moment to turn toward your body with kindness and mercy, and thank it for the precious life that it gives you. Then, please join our growing community of Body Positive activists who are working in schools and community organizations all around the country and the world. Take a workshop, read our book, or make a commitment to attend one of our intensive leadership trainings in 2017. Together, we can change the world!
Learn More About Embody and Upcoming Workshops and Trainings
About the authors:
Connie Sobczak, Co-Founder, Executive Director, The Body Positive
Connie is an author, educator, and award-winning video producer. Her experience with an eating disorder in her teen years and the death of her sister, Stephanie, inspired her life’s work to create a world where all people are free to love their bodies. In 1996, she brought her vision to life when she created The Body Positive with Elizabeth Scott, LCSW. Connie is the author of Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body (and quiet that critical voice!), a book in which she brings the Be Body Positive Model to life, and skillfully and lovingly reconnects readers to their authenticity and beauty. Connie directed the BodyTalk DVD series for students in grades K-12, viewed by an audience of more than a million people, and the award-winning Discover Your Healthy Weight DVD for adults. She produces The Body Positive’s curricula, leadership training materials, and online continuing education courses, trains student leaders and professionals to develop Be Body Positive programs for youth and adults, and conducts workshops for the public. A California native, Connie currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner, Jim. Their daughter, Carmen, is her inspiration and her joy.
Elizabeth Scott, LSCW, Co-Founder, The Body Positive
Elizabeth has been practicing psychotherapy in Marin County, California for twenty-seven years, specializing in eating disorders treatment. She has refined the core Competencies of the Be Body Positive Model to be appropriate for the treatment as well as the prevention of eating problems. She now offers her treatment approach in the 10 CEU Body Positive Psychotherapy online course for professionals. Since 1998, Elizabeth has been training students and staff in high school and college to lead Body Positive programs on their campuses. She also trains and supervises eating disorders treatment professionals in private practice and inpatient treatment centers, and through professional seminars. She helped develop videos and guidebooks for The Body Positive’s school-based prevention work, and co-produced the premiere video project for ThisIsBeauty.org, the organization’s online campaign to promote healthy body image through the expression of one’s authentic beauty. Her experiences as a Body Positive psychotherapist are featured in Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body (and quiet that critical voice!). Elizabeth is passionate about her work because she believes that a healthy self-image is an essential aspect of a person’s development.
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