Body Project spreads acceptance at ASU

Chandler-Gilbert Community College psychology freshman Natalie Cadwell is all too familiar with the negative effects the media can have on girls of any age. As a small, blonde swimmer from Gilbert, the pressure to look a certain way took over her life and made it impossible for her to look at herself in the mirror without disgust.

The media plays a role in promoting the wrong body image to women and girls worldwide, and ASU is bringing a nationally recognized program to its campuses to help undergraduates reverse this negative way of thinking.

When she was 15, the first thing on Cadwell’s mind after waking was how she could avoid eating. Looking at herself in the mirror, she was repulsed by the “round blob for a middle” she saw when she glanced at her stomach. At school, her inner demons would whisper their toxic words and tell her she did not look like the girls in the magazines or like the other girls in her class. The comparisons were consuming her life.

“I would make myself so anxious worrying about whether people thought I was pretty enough or smart enough or confident enough or just plain good enough,” Cadwell said.

Viewing the kitchen as her enemy, she did not feel safe at home. Cadwell would hide from her family and hated anyone who looked at her out of fear that those girls were better than her. Instead of falling asleep from exhaustion after swim practice, Cadwell would lie in bed imagining how she would react when confronted with food the next day. It seemed to be a roller coaster she could never get off.

Cadwell, now 18, suffered from orthorexia, an eating disorder characterized by an unhealthy obsession with eating only healthy foods to the point of becoming fixated on its quality and purity, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Eating only low calorie proteins and fruit in combination with excessive exercising left Cadwell fighting a constant battle. NEDA reports that roughly half a million teens and 20 million women suffer from eating disorders.

The Body Project is a nationally recognized program that focuses on preventing eating disorders in high school and college students. It uses peer-led groups to help students realize the costs, both personal and societal, that result from adopting the mass media concept of thinness. By reversing this way of thinking, students have a chance to reduce their risk for future development of eating disorders, according to the Body Project website.

The National Institutes of Health reports that the highest period for being at risk of developing an eating disorder is during late adolescence, around the age of an incoming college freshman. NEDA conducted a study on college students showing that this period of transition and development makes it more likely for eating disorders to begin. More than 100 universities around the country have adopted the Body Project.

Professor Marisol Perez is using her years of health psychology research to reach out to communities within the four campuses in an effort to spread the word. Perez is working with undergraduate women and sororities by having groups of seven to 20 women led by peer leaders.

“I have worked with sororities in the past, and they are a great home for the Body Project because of the sisterhood model, which nicely fits the goals of the Body Project,” she said.

Peer leaders act as guides to help students see their own beauty.

Peer leader Carmen Estep, a psychology major, said her goal with the Body Project is to help women become more confident.

“The dynamic of the peer leaders is to wear two hats: one as a leader and another as if we were going through the sessions as a student,” she said.

The program consists of four weekly sessions of an hour each day. In these groups, students engage in activities that challenge the thin ideal. Activities range from making positive statements about themselves to writing letters to younger girls.

Studies show that voluntarily voicing the negative effects of the thin ideal results in a change of attitude. Participants learn to see the costs in trying to live up to this impossible ideal.

Developed by Eric Stice, the program reports to be the only eating disorder intervention that produces a reduced “risk for future onset of obesity, results in improved psychosocial functioning and reduces mental health care utilization,” as replicated in labs. These lab studies are consistent in showing that the persuasion techniques work, making it the first of its kind.

The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology reports that participants reduced the risk of developing eating disorders by 61 percent. These effects last up to three years.

With this success rate, Perez wants students at ASU to take advantage of the program and encourage others to change their way of thinking.

As a peer leader, psychology student Ruby Barraza has a chance to work with other women who struggle the way she did. For a long time, she hated her body.

“Getting involved with the Body Project has enabled me to reach out to other women and encourage them to pursue a healthy body ideal,” she said.

Perez expects a group of 200 women who will become part of the Body Project between now and the end of the semester.

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @korinagarcia_

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