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Educator: In a Body-Focused World, Healthy Self-Images Rule

October 25, 2007
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Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair displays her book on advancing "girl power."

It's tough raising a child, especially a young girl, in today's body-focused world. Between magazines showing stick-thin actresses on their covers and similarly bone-thin models walking the runways, it's perhaps not surprising that young American girls think that the slimmer you are, the prettier and more popular you'll be.

Never mind that 1950s' icon Marilyn Monroe was a size 14 and had a solid 145 pounds on her 5-foot-4-inch frame.

These were the messages relayed by clinical psychologist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D., to a gathering of about 40 school guidance counselors, psychologists and health-education teachers during a seminar titled "bodytalk" on Oct. 19 at the Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood.

The gathering, presented by the nonprofit Jenkintown-based group "A Chance to Heal," focused on providing tools for preventing eating disorders to those who work with young people.

Steiner-Adair is the co-author of Full of Ourselves: A Wellness Program Advancing Girl Power, Health, and Leadership, an eating-disorders prevention program geared toward middle-school-age children. With funding from the Hadassah Foundation, Steiner-Adair has recently co-authored the soon-to-be online supplement, "Bishvili, For Me: A Jewish Guide to Full of Ourselves," components of which she addressed at the seminar.

For girls, "self-worth is determined by what you weigh," explained Steiner-Adair. Both the Jewish and Hispanic communities in the United States have a larger proportion of girls with eating disorders than the general population, she said. She noted that Jewish parents tend to get overinvolved in what their daughters look like as part of the ritual of "assimilating" into American culture.

She added that genes also play a role. Certain traits that can be part of a genetic predisposition to having an eating disorder can be found more frequently in Jews than in other groups. She said these traits include being highly sensitive, intelligent, overly anxious, and having a drive for personal perfection and success.

"Bishvili" utilizes and draws upon Jewish values to strengthen the message of having a positive self-image, and that every person can make a difference, explained Steiner-Adair.

She said that people hear such messages in Jewish literature, but these ideas can be applied in daily life as well. One particular example is to start out meals by saying a blessing over food, which she said becomes a conscious effort to enjoy the meal more.

The Full of Ourselves book, complete with curriculum material, can be used in Jewish day schools, Hebrew schools, summer camps and after-school programs, she added.

The best way to prevent eating disorders, said Steiner-Adair, is not to mention them directly. By focusing more on creating strong, positive girls with healthy images of their bodies, eating disorders can be prevented, she noted.

The public doesn't always understand that people with eating disorders are not always easy to spot, said Ivy Silver, co-founder of "A Chance to Heal."

While people suffering from such ailments as anorexia, she said, might appear to be losing weight and be extremely thin, those with bulimia, for example, might seem of a normal weight.

Silver said that there are a lot of misconceptions regarding eating disorders, including that the disorder is the main issue. The truth is that these problems come about after something in a person's life becomes so out-of-control that he or she turns to focus on food, instead of the problem at hand, similar to the way an alcoholic turns to drinking as a coping mechanism.

Another misconception is that such disorders only affect girls and young women.

Not true. As both Silver and Steiner-Adair pointed out, males -- in growing numbers -- can also be touched by eating disorders, and not just athletes.

Moreover, eating disorders, as a whole, are not just a school-based issue; it goes beyond that, said seminar participant Tasha Vigoda, a guidance counselor at Barrack Hebrew Academy in Merion Station.

Nevertheless, she said, it's an issue for educators: "We have to be aware of all possibilities for children."

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