In Search of Perfection; Play Looks at Women's Obsession with Body Image

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Byline: Jayne Blanchard, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …