Empowered to REbeL
By Laura Eickman, Psy.D.
Breaking Out of the Box
“Rules are made to be broken.” Do you ascribe to this philosophy? Or do you stick to the rules? Growing up, I was a rule follower. My sister was the rebel. I saw the consequences she was assigned when breaking the rules, and I tried that much harder to never “cross the line.” I actually worked hard at staying IN a box and keeping the safety of those four lines around me at all times. What I looked liked, how others thought of me, how I behaved, the grades I received and activities I was in . . . there were always prescriptions for what one should do. And I was good at following those rules.
I remained in this box, for the most part, until my junior year of college. At a part-time job in the College of Arts and Sciences. I was tasked with assisting other undergraduate students in selecting courses to fulfill their degree requirements. My supervisor ensured that I was helping these students follow the rules so they could graduate. Yet, at the same time, she sparked this tiny idea in me that maybe choosing to not follow some rules was okay. With her very short, silver gray hair, I remember thinking that her appearance was almost exotic. She didn’t ascribe to the notion that women should dye their hair nor did she seem caught up in the “standards of American beauty” that felt, to me, to be increasingly narrow. Her influence on me was profound as she introduced me to feminist theories, and supported the burgeoning notion that perhaps, even if I didn’t follow all the “rules” for young women, I was still worthy.
After graduation from college, I moved to an area of the country and particularly, a school that adhered to a more “traditional” philosophy in terms of social mores, gender roles, and education. The “baby rebel” that was starting to grow inside me grew silent and instead, I worked at being a tabula rasa (commonly translated to mean blank slate) as instructed by my psychology professors. Not until my postdoctoral fellowship did this begin to change again. I was introduced–quite fortunately–to a psychologist who blew open so many of the “rules” from graduate school. The idea of being a “blank slate,” of not allowing my self into the therapy room, of never disclosing my personal history of depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder, of not touching or hugging clients for any reason . . . she challenged me to question these practices, how they worked (or didn’t work) for me, and why they were in place. I immediately connected to her authenticity and thought, “This. This is how real change happens–by being real with each other.”
Once you allow yourself to be vulnerable and to be seen, a world of growth can occur. And I grew out of this box permanently when a fellow therapist (who calls herself a “soft-spoken-outspoken advocate”) took my hand, and modeled how to be an effective advocate and activist, challenged my privilege, and validated my belief that working at the community level (and outside of formal research labs, hospitals, and universities) could create widespread change. Collectively, these individuals (and others along the way) empowered me to listen to my inner voice instead of all the noise outside. To pursue a project that was a risk. To see that not all rules should be followed.
Who these people (or that person) in your life? The ones who really see you, and see not only what you could be but who you are?
We all need these people. I think teens do especially. And this belief was a guiding factor in the development of REbeL.
Rebels with a Cause
The REbeL program has multiple goals. First and foremost, REbeL is intended to be of service in the field of eating disorders. With this in mind, we aim to: reduce risk factors indicated in the development of eating disorders, increase awareness of and end stigma around eating disorders, provide accurate and engaging education, and facilitate referrals to treatment. Second, on a broader level, we target the widespread body dissatisfaction, appearance-related bullying, and sense of “not enough-ness” that is ever present. And third, we want to create supportive spaces for young people in which they can be heard and seen and empowered. We want to take teens by the hand and be “that person” for them. More than nine years later, we are achieving these goals, creating significant impact, and having a whole lot of fun in the process!
When individuals are introduced to REbeL, questions about our name invariably arise. What does the name mean and why is it written with mixed capital and lowercase letters? First, we use the verb form of the word as in “to rebel against.” In this way, our name is tied to the theory underlying the program. We empower students to “rebel” against the unrealistic standards for appearance set forth by our culture, the diet mentality, conformity, and peer pressure. Because many of these are normative in our culture today, rebelling in this way creates cognitive dissonance (and thereby change). Also important, is the focus on teaching participants to be: aware, informed, critical consumers, and agents of change. Ultimately, we want to encourage others to step outside of any boxes they think they should be living in, and instead, to be fully themselves.
The REbeL program is primarily intended for high school students but has grown to include middle school and college students as well. Oftentimes, the potential contributions and abilities of teens are minimized. They spend most of their time existing in a world in which they are the student (whether with their teachers at school or at home with parents/guardians). REbeL moves beyond these roles and empowers teens to become the educators. We want to listen to and validate their experiences, grow their sense of agency, and harness their developmentally natural rebellion for good. In our experience, teens want to help others and make an impact; and if provided with the opportunity, they can affect a much more profound difference in their peer communities than adults can.
The work of REbeL is best illustrated through specific examples and photos of the varied projects that are carried out. While we do have a standard curriculum that all of our REbeL groups use, we also want them to “think outside of that box.” As a result of their creativity and initiative, we have a number of impactful, student-driven outreach efforts.
One of our very first REbeL activities is still among the most popular ways to “rebel.” Our student members set up Whiteboard Photo Stations at school activities or during lunch, and then challenge those who approach to write something they love about themselves. What they write can be a physical attribute or a personality trait but it needs to be about them (not about a friend, their family, or their dog). Once the participant has finished writing on their whiteboard, they are asked to have a photo taken and then to post (or allow REbeL to post) the photo on social media. We often post these photos on Wednesdays to promote #WhiteboardWednesday and encourage others to join in on social media as well.
Publicly acknowledging aspects of ourselves positively can produce uneasy feelings (especially if those aspects vary from our culture’s standard for appearance). It may feel like rebelling to state your love for something about yourself and then share it openly; being critical seems to come much easier! REbeL students have learned a great deal by observing the reactions this activity engenders. From young children who complete the activity with ease (and in fact, don’t consider the idea that there would ever be anything to NOT love about themselves) to parents who stand with a whiteboard in hand for 20 minutes trying to complete the sentence, “I love my _______ ,” this simple exercise is actually quite significant in its impact. So when next Wednesday rolls around, pull out a whiteboard (or a piece of paper) and a marker, and let us know what you love about YOU! You can be a rebel too.
Our signature event, the Walk to REbeL, was an idea proposed by a REbeL high school student in 2010. Now in its 7th year, the Walk is a community-wide event that has grown to include more than 750 people. These individuals of all ages join together to walk a 3-mile route lined with student-made signs that promote body acceptance. Physical activity is so tied up with burning calories and losing weight and competing; we rebel against the notion that those are the primary purposes of movement. Instead, we move to celebrate all our bodies can do and impact those driving by in the process! When I consider the thousands of individuals who have attended our Walks over the years, I am thankful that this teen (now well into her 20s) was given the space to share a big idea and was empowered to make it happen.
The next two outreach efforts were informed by student feedback which ultimately increased their success. Be You Week is a week-long activism campaign held in the spring. Students cover the school walls with posters, hold Whiteboard Photo Stations, provide educational presentations, chalk the sidewalks, and pass out Compliment Cookies. This initiative, however, was originally held in the fall as a way to “kick off” the school year and begin to “change the definition of health and beauty for every body.” The REbeL members pushed to move the event to the spring. They saw a need to counteract the focus on and increase in diet-talk and body bashing that occurs among teens preparing for Prom, Spring Break, and summer. The REbeL teens were well-attuned with the patterns of their peers and accurately predicted that Be You Week would “hit home more” in the spring. Challenging REbeL members to take ownership of planning & executing Be You Week has continued to be a great way to foster development of planning, organization, & leadership skills.
The Tuesday of Be You Week is #DudesDayTuesday, an outreach effort that we recognize on Tuesdays throughout the year. Our members noted that REbeL’s messaging wasn’t connecting with their male peers yet they were certain that males in their school were struggling with body image concerns and disordered eating (and research findings, of course, do support that men suffer from eating disorders, disordered eating, and body dissatisfaction). REbeL members set up panels to include males (both student and teacher) in their school, asked questions about the struggles guys face, and explored how to make REbeL’s messages resonate more with males. The groups actively invited their male peers to join REbeL, and as an organization, we continue to work toward developing materials, projects, and messaging that better serve this population.
The final student-driven effort to highlight here is a public service announcement (PSA) featured on NBC’s TODAY.
(To view this 10-second PSA, click here: http://bit.ly/2x38fkc)
REbeL was lucky enough to be approached by The TODAY Show to be a part of their #LoveYourSelfie campaign with the primary requirement being that the PSA was created entirely by teens. This amazing group wrote, directed, filmed, and edited this piece over a few days, and the experience was priceless! I was awed by the creativity, passion, and vulnerability these teens showed during this process. As the REbeL members worked, I noticed that a theme was emerging . . . that they didn’t want to be defined or contained by a single label. They didn’t want to be “boxed in” based on their interests or appearance. And because they are a generation who grew up with an image-based social media, the most fitting summary of their discussion was this: I am so much more than a picture.
Yes, they are.
And if those teens learned that their worth does not lie in their body shape or size, if they were empowered to rebel against our appearance-obsessed diet culture, and if they are comfortable being fully themselves (and hopefully taking others’ hands along the way) . . . then I have hope that one day saying, “I love my thighs” will no longer be an act of rebellion.
Free to Be Me
While there are still times that I want to wrap that safe box around me and quiet my voice and not make waves, that’s not who I actually am today. I am so much more.
I am a psychologist in recovery (and not a blank slate).
I am angry that we live in a culture in which we are taught to hate our bodies.
I am an advocate for those with mental illness, and in particular, those with eating disorders.
I am frustrated that we still too often choose not to focus on prevention.
I am a student and a teacher and a holder of hands.
I am empowered by women behind me, and inspired by the teens in front of me.
But mostly, I am now a rebel and along with the many others in our program, we will continue to REbeL against the world trying to make us anything else.
Will you join us?
About the author:
Laura Eickman, Psy.D. is a Licensed Psychologist and the founder of the not-for-profit organization, REbeL, Inc. (www.re-bel.org) Laura has worked in the fields of eating disorders and body image for nearly 20 years as a therapist, educator, researcher, and advocate. When not “rebelling,” she loves to read, bake, watch college football, and try to find a calm space in the midst of her husband and three boys.