- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2005

On one end of the spectrum, you have the pneumatic dimensions of Pamela Anderson. On the other are uber-thin Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie and Cameron Diaz. Is it any wonder the average American teenage girl thinks the ideal body type is a Q-tip with a D cup?

According to sociologist Joan Jacobs Brumberg, 53 percent of all 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies. By age 17, that number increases to 78 percent.

Age does not necessarily bring body wisdom. A recent poll in Ladies’ Home Journal found that most women would rather be hit by a truck than gain weight. Other findings revealed that 75 percent were more afraid of spending a day at the beach in a thong than having a root canal.

Why modern American females hate their bodies and strive to conform to impossible standards of perfection is the subject of the new play “The Body Project,” based on Miss Brumberg’s 1998 book of the same name. Written and directed by Leslie Jacobson and Vanessa Thomas, the play examines through seven characters of all shapes and sizes how body image has become an obsession for most women, who try to minimize or “perfect” themselves through extreme makeovers, plastic surgery, constant dieting, and bingeing and purging.

“As a woman, I am both fascinated and distressed by the phenomenon of ‘lookism,’ where everything depends on how a person looks and how much they weigh,” Miss Jacobson says. “Everyone seems to be dissatisfied with their bodies — everyone, no matter what their age or size.”

She saw it with her own daughters, now ages 16 and 22, who measured themselves against the media image of how young girls should look and decided they were inadequate despite their mother’s efforts to raise them in a body-positive home.

“My older daughter had a weight problem, and my 16-year-old is naturally thin, but she is no happier with her body than her sister. I find that heartbreaking,” Miss Jacobson says, noting that she, too, is not immune to those feelings.

“I am a participant in the struggle, since I have worn a size 6 and a size 18 and everything in-between,” Miss Jacobson adds.

“But when I was at my slimmest, there was a period where the word ‘sandwich’ was not a part of my vocabulary and I had to diet constantly and be vigilant in order to stay a certain size. I began to question that — why, as women gain more power and position in society, there is more pressure for them to take up less space.”

Female movers and shakers are practically required to be a size 0 in today’s business and entertainment worlds. “There is even a size 00 now, which I guess is even smaller than a 0. What is size zero? It means you are not there,” Miss Jacobson says.

Of course, the ideal for some body parts today would make Marilyn Monroe a candidate for a Wonderbra. “The big thing now for sweet 16 and high school graduation gifts is breast implants,” Miss Jacobson says.

“When I asked some of these mothers about the reasoning behind this, they said, ‘I want my daughter to have more confidence in college.’ As if bigger breasts give you real confidence. This pressure for young girls to be sex objects all the time is very disturbing.”

When writing the play, Miss Jacobson and Miss Thomas went to college campuses and conducted improvisational sessions with young women about body image. “The extraordinary thing was that nobody we spoke to seemed pleased with their bodies — the string beans felt weird about themselves; so did the curvier girls and the ones we perceived as ‘perfect,’” she says. “We began to wonder how these fears and insecurities could impact relationships and friendships. Who has time and energy for intimacy when you are punishing yourself for your appearance?”

Out of these workshops, it became apparent to the authors that “American women have become increasingly disconnected from their bodies and what makes them uniquely womanly,” Miss Jacobson continues. “It is like our bodies are inconvenient and disobedient now instead of the place where we reside.”

She stresses, however, that “The Body Project” is not about making judgments, but exploring issues.

“Maybe the play will help some women be more loving and humane toward their bodies,” Miss Jacobson says. “It is a natural impulse to want to be healthy and attractive, but it has gotten way out of hand. And both sexes are suffering because of it.”

WHAT: “The Body Project,” written and directed by Leslie Jacobson and Vanessa Thomas

WHERE: Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. No Sunday matinee tomorrow. Through Nov. 13.

TICKETS: $10 to $30

INFORMATION: 703/578-1100

WEB SITE: horizonstheatre.org

Post-show discussions on the obsessive pursuit of physical perfection — led by experts in the fields of medicine, advertising and social work — will take place after performances of “The Body Project.”

The schedule of post-show speakers, to date, includes:

• Thursday — Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of “You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.”

• Friday and Saturday — Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of the book “The Body Project.”

• Oct. 30 — Stephenie Foster, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood.

• Nov. 3 — Dr. Roberta L. Gartside, plastic and reconstructive surgery, Fairfax.

• Nov. 4 — Dr. Roberta L. Gartside and Marya Hornbacher, author of “Wasted.”

• Nov. 5 — Marya Hornbacher.

m Nov. 10 — Crystal Plati, executive director of Choice USA and advisory council member of the Women’s Information Network (WIN), plus Teresa Castracane, Hope Lambert and Megan Shea, designers of a new photography exhibit, “The Beauty Project.” The exhibit will be on display in the gallery space of the Warehouse Theater throughout the run of “The Body Project.”

• Nov. 11-12 — Dr. Yongsook Victoria Suh, plastic and reconstructive surgery, Fairfax.

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