Mirror, mirror: Palo Alto JCC event looks at medias role in negative body image

Sydney Calander is so accustomed to hearing her women friends tear down their own appearances that she hardly notices it anymore.

“Honestly? It’s been like that ever since I can remember,” says Calander, 20, a junior at Pitzer College in Southern California. “Around the time I turned 12 or so, I became aware of all my friends getting really critical about their bodies, the way they looked — how they felt they had to look in order to be loved, or to attract a partner.”

As a student at San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay, Calander made sure not to let her own similar thoughts spiral into negative behavior.

“I never suffered from anything I would actually consider an eating disorder,” she says. (Off the top of her head, she can count more than a handful of classmates who certainly did, though none of those contacted wanted to discuss their experiences for this article.)

However: “I think the majority of American women are rarely satisfied with the way they look,” says Calander, whose interest in body image issues led her to volunteer with a nonprofit dedicated to tackling negative effects of the media on teens’ self-esteem. “I can definitely include myself in that.”

Calander’s sentiments echo the statistics. At least 10 million people in the United States suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, with about a 10-to-1 ratio of women to men, according to most sources. (Experts warn that accurate numbers are hard to come by, as those suffering don’t always self-report.)

However, it’s clear that the disorders are on the rise — the incidence of anorexia in girls 15 to 19 has increased steadily every decade since the 1930s — and that they are affecting younger and younger kids.

According to a recent Department of Health and Human Services study, almost half of American children between the first and third grades report wanting to be thinner; half of American girls ages 9 and 10 are either dieting or have dieted before.

And then there are the subtler issues that Calander mentioned, which are harder to pinpoint.

“There’s this standard, everyday body-image dissatisfaction that most women walk around with, that says we’re not good enough if we don’t weigh a certain amount, if we don’t look the way women do on TV or in magazines,” says Jennifer Berger, the executive director of About-Face, the San Francisco–based nonprofit where Calander volunteered.

The organization, which leads educational workshops for young women, proclaims its mission is combating the “toxic media environment” that contributes to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety over weight and appearance, unhealthy diets and exercise regimens, unwise sexual practices and eating disorders.

A graphic re-imagining Rosie the Riveter is used in promotional materials for the documentary “Miss Representation.”

Berger will be on hand Tuesday, May 15 when the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto hosts an already sold-out screening of the documentary “Miss Representation,” which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The 90-minute film, which was written, directed and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, explores the ways that sexualized, superficial depictions of women in the media have led to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence.

In it, interviews with women from the worlds of politics, film, journalism and activism — including Dianne Feinstein, Condoleezza Rice, Rachel Maddow, Geena Davis, Rosario Dawson, Katie Couric and Gloria Steinem — provide an inside look at media messages and the importance of positive female role models.

“We were just so inspired by the film and these really important questions it raises, and it was clear that they were relevant to our community,” says Rebecca Siegel, adult programs coordinator at the Palo Alto JCC.

She added that while the initial plan was to gear the event toward parents, “we were blown away” by the response from both teens and adults — and the free event, which is restricted to those 14 and older due to mature themes in the film, maxed out early at 380 people.

Berger said asking About-Face to be a sponsor was a natural decision. The organization was founded in 1995 by activist Kathy Bruin, who was fed up with the “heroin chic” look that was in style in fashion magazines. Using a photo of Kate Moss from a Calvin Klein ad, she created a poster that read “Emaciation Stinks — Stop Starvation Imagery.” She hung copies on construction sites across San Francisco, garnering national media coverage.

“Since Kathy first took that stand, a lot of [the media messaging] has gotten even worse,” says Berger. “The sexualization of women and girls is so much stronger, the idealized body is still very thin. And then we see eating disorder rates continue to go up. Cosmetic surgery has tripled in the last 10 years alone.”

Berger will join Donnovan Yisrael, a health educator at Stanford, and Sheila Dubin, a specialist with Parents Place (a parent education and counseling program of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, and another co-sponsor), for a parent-centric panel discussion after the screening of the film. Teens will have the option of a breakout peer-to-peer discussion guided by counselors in the next room.

Studies show that eating disorders and body image issues are color-blind, affecting women and girls from every ethnic background — clearly, the Jewish community is far from immune. On the contrary, say some experts, Jewish girls and women may face a particularly complex uphill battle for self-acceptance.

For one, many of the personality traits seen in women who suffer from anorexia overlap with those valued in a Jewish home, according to Lisa Bograd, a San Francisco–based therapist who sometimes draws on the teachings of Judaism in her nutritional counseling sessions for parents.

“When we look at some of the characteristics that are likely to engender an eating disorder, you find perfectionism, a high drive for achievement, a need for control, often a struggle with anxiety or depression … as well as a focus on food,” says Bograd, who hears frequently from parents who have “no idea how to talk to their children” about what eating healthfully means.

“It’s problematic,” she said. “You want them to eat, you want a chubby baby, but you don’t want them to grow up to be overweight … and it’s just a fact that food is a big part of our culture. And food and love are very connected.”

That complicated relationship — and how attitudes about food manifest in different cultures — is part of what spurred the interest of Katherine Taylor Lynch, a research assistant in clinical psychology at Stanford who runs a weekly support group in San Francisco for people recovering from eating disorders.

About-Face founder Kathy Bruin shook things up with this 1995 poster.

“Family is a really big part of eating disorders,” Lynch says. “Growing up with my Jewish grandmother and mother, I never questioned the idea that when you do something well, you eat. When something bad happens, you eat. There’s definitely an element of ‘food is love.’ ”

It was only as she got older that Lynch began analyzing her grandmother’s behaviors, toward food in particular.

“It was always along the lines of, ‘She’s gonna feed us a ton, but maybe not eat, herself,’ ” Lynch recalls. “She had a really terrible body image. She was very uncomfortable with the way she looked. I think for her, having been raised eating kosher until she was an adult, and being traditional in all these other ways, there was a conflict between the role food should play and her perception of wanting to be attractive.”

In “Hungry,” a 2009 book by the Palo Alto mother-daughter team Sheila and Lisa Himmel, both women reflect on the complexity of treating an eating disorder as a Jewish family. Lisa, who was diagnosed with anorexia as a senior at Gunn High School, suffered on and off for the next four years.

“For Jews, eating disorders are a double shame,” Sheila told the j. in a 2009 interview. “In the same way we’re not supposed to get tattoos, we’re not supposed to abuse our bodies” by refusing to eat.

“We both felt we had done something wrong Jewishly,” she added. “I think that’s something the Jewish community could do better — to open a conversation [about eating disorders] in a way that doesn’t make people feel they’ve done something against the tradition.”

Sydney Calander

“As a Jewish woman,” Calander says, she can relate. “Food is really an integral part of our religion as well as our culture,” she says. “It’s part of every celebration … so, sure, there’s a sense of wanting to take part in cultural rituals, but then, ‘Oh wait, if I eat this much matzah brei I’m going to gain 10 pounds.’ ”

From a media influence standpoint, many Jewish girls and women clearly feel a pressure to emulate what they see in magazines and on TV, said Berger — in a culture that still celebrates a predominantly “Western-looking” ideal. (Read: tall and thin with blonde hair and blue eyes.)

“So many Jewish women walk around hating their hair, their noses, whatever it is they’ve decided to hate,” Berger says. “And we can do whatever we want to ‘erase’ those things — get nose jobs, straighten our hair all the time. But it truly saddens me as a woman that so many Jewish teenage girls grow up with this understanding that they’re somehow weird and unacceptable to the rest of the culture.”

Negative portrayals of Jews in the media extend to boys and men, of course, Berger adds. “If I see one more Jewish kid sucking on an [asthma] inhaler on TV as something really humorous, I’m just gonna lose my mind,” she says.

So what can be done to combat these messages from the media, and to begin to untangle Jews’ often tortured relationship with food?

Bograd thinks Jewish texts offer some answers. The therapist drew inspiration from Wendy Mogul’s 2006 book “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” to develop a workshop titled “Sacred Spoonfuls: Feeding our Children the Blessings of Food, Not the Burdens.” The goal, she says, is to help Jewish parents and kids develop healthy eating habits and attitudes toward food by understanding what Judaism has to say about the matter.

“Judaism actually does a really good job of saying ‘It’s OK to have pleasure around food’ — we were given the ability to experience pleasure that way, and enjoy it,” she says. “But at the same time, [Judaism] talks about the importance of restraint.”

Celebrations like Shabbat can be a perfect touchstone for parents to talk about approaching food in a conscious, thoughtful and thankful way, Bograd says.

“Shabbat is a wonderful celebration of making space in your life for enjoyment and pleasure, and eating, obviously. But the rituals and the blessings that have to do with food are also connected to a higher being, so it becomes a really mindful experience.”

Lynch said simple things like “phasing weight out of everyday conversation” can help combat the pressure young women face to look perfect.

Jennifer Berger

“Beauty and thinness are unfortunately equated in our society, so it’s really common for people to come up and say ‘Oh, you’ve lost weight’ as a compliment,” said Lynch. “But especially for young people, it’s important to emphasize the health benefits of things like fitness and good nutrition as opposed to body size.”

As for the negative impact of the media messages, Berger says helping young people think critically about advertisements — to question what’s being marketed at them, and why — is a crucial step toward improving self-esteem.

To that end, About-Face runs “Education Into Action” media literacy workshops in the Bay Area, available to young women and men ages 13 through 30. The teens who participate can then take another course and create a campaign against negative media messages.

Participants are sometimes asked to view advertisements, especially those with ultra-skinny or unrealistically Photoshop-altered models, and asked to talk about how the ads make them feel.

Calander first got involved with About-Face in 2008, during her junior year at JCHS of the Bay, and she feels it not only helped arm her with the confidence and tools to question images in the media, but also to support friends who are struggling with body image issues.

“I think on a micro-level, just supporting each other verbally is really important — trying to fight some of the negative messages by letting each other know, ‘Hey, we’re beautiful, strong, independent women,’ ” she says. She recalls one time in particular: when a college, friend had a bad experience with a guy and was tearfully talking about how undesirable she felt.

“I said ‘Tell me something you love about yourself,’ ” Calander recalls. “And she couldn’t think of one thing. And this is a talented, smart, beautiful woman … we have to help build each other up.”

Calander does feel that some strides are being made in society, such as Israel banning the use of medically “underweight” models in advertisements. Also, Vogue this month announced that no “obviously underweight” models or models under 16 will be used in any of its publications, and the French Parliament recently voted in favor of a bill that outlaws “publicly inciting extreme thinness.”

But, Berger says, short of cutting off a child’s media intake, the best possible way for parents and teens to grapple with these issues is to keep being vocal about them — and to encourage a critical eye.

“Another huge part of our Jewish cultural tradition is critical thinking, of questioning things and not accepting everything at face value,” Berger says, “and that’s part of how I came to this work.

“As a media consumer, sometimes it’s just a question of looking at an advertisement and reminding yourself to think ‘Why do I feel this way?’” says Berger. “What’s being sold here? And why is making me feel like I’m not good enough a part of it?”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.