Program stresses it's OK to just be yourself

URBANA – Trying to look like supermodel Naomi Campbell isn't a realistic goal for most teen-agers.

But trying to like the model you already are, that's a good goal for everyone, according to Urbana Middle School guidance counselor Terri Medwed.

For 10 weeks, Medwed and three University of Illinois students have led 12 seventh- and eighth-graders through discussion and activities designed to boost their confidence in themselves and their bodies.

Medwed said that, in addition to teaching nutrition and physical activity, she strives for the program to enable girls "to see themselves in a more realistic light."

"If all you're doing is fixating on your thighs," she said, "you may forget what a beautiful smile you have."

During the weekly meetings, about 40 minutes in length, the middle schoolers would skip their last class of the day to talk confidentially about topics like how friends, family and the media can influence students' perceptions of themselves.

Eighth-grader Shakyra Bledsoe said she now has "better self-confidence" and has learned not to listen to mean things other people might say.

She also appreciated working with the UI students because they were older, but not old.

The UI students are all part of the Body Image Network, a UI registered student organization that promotes strong body images.

Much of the session's curriculum was devised using materials the UI group made. UI students Julie LeCleir, Lydia Wukasch and Ashley Forsythe adapted to the age group.

"We're not counselors, and we can't counsel them," LeCleir said. What they did, she said, was bring "a very positive message each week."

One exercise had the girls each writing one positive attribute of another girl.

Another activity had them comparing a photograph of a woman before and after a makeover and airbrushing, to show the girls how unrealistic it was to expect to look like models.

UMS student Patricia Fortner learned that "you don't have to be skinny." The seventh-grader also liked talking with the other middle school students. "You get to know people in your school," she said.

The university students and Medwed all stress that the program is not therapy, but a group that discusses subjects frequently on students' minds. Students in the program have either signed themselves up or had Medwed or a friend or family member suggest them.

"Some of our young women were having issues related to their bodies," Medwed said. "They're a whole cross-range of different students. ... It's a diverse group in terms of ethnicity, in terms of size."

Wukasch, a UI sophomore, knows how much a body-image program in high school can help young people. She said she was inspired to help at the middle school because a similar panel at her high school had helped her.

"This age group picks up on everything," Wukasch said. She hopes she has helped teach "how to handle the media pressure and the pressure from your family and friends."

On Monday, students wrote themselves a letter reminding of all that they learned in the class. They'll receive the mail next fall.

Each also received a T-shirt with the phrase "Your body is the vehicle to your dreams. Honor it. Respect it. Fuel it."

Medwed said the program has worked so well with the girls that in the fall she'll be leading a similar curriculum for boys. She's hoping to find a male UI student to fill in for one of the current university facilitators.

For Fortner, models like Naomi Campbell don't fit her aspirations.

"You don't have to be someone else," she said. "You can be yourself."

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