Every year, about 25 women gather in the morning at sunrise to take an hour-long walk. An outside observer of this gathering wouldn't have a clue as to what ties bind the triathlete mother of two from Los Angeles with the psychologist from Kansas or the fitness instructor from Baltimore.
Yet, since 1996, this group of women from all over America has forwarded phone calls and e-mails, kissed their loved ones goodbye, and then headed out of town to clear their minds and hearts for four days at Shape's Body Confident (previously known as Body Positive) program. The goal of the four days? To enable the women to transform their body images.
Launched in 1996, Shape's Body Confident revolves around how the women feel about themselves and their bodies and how to boost those feelings. A typical day includes interactive discussions on body image-related themes, exercise (from Spinning to hiking to yoga), learning relaxation techniques, and listening to speakers on such topics as sexuality, nutrition and fitness.
Mornings begin with a group walk or extended hike. Participants then meet for a group discussion led by psychologist and body-image expert Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., director of the Cincinnati Psychiatric Institute. Most alumnae say they find the synergy and openness shared by women who've faced similar body image battles the most valuable part of the program. Women relate feelings ranging from shame, guilt and anger to hopefulness, joy and self-acceptance.
Because the women's experiences run the gamut from former anorexic to compulsive exerciser or overeater, everyone can relate to someone in the group. And by encouraging individual journal writing, visualization and group discussion, Kearney-Cooke helps these women identify their areas of concern and examine specific behaviors that perpetuate negativity toward their bodies. She also presents a step-by-step strategy for redrawing a healthier body image that participants can take home.
Does Body Confident work? This is a question perhaps best answered by the women who've returned for years. As you'll see by reading some of the alumnae's powerful testimonials, the real challenge they all face goes deeper than their bodies. That challenge is to feel better about who they are. Here's what happened to them in the year following their first Body Confident seminars--and how Body Confident played a significant role in making those changes come about.
"I came out of my depression."
- Julie Robinson, Los Angeles
In 1996, Robinson attended the first-ever Body Confident session, which was held shortly after her mother died. "My mother's death made me hit rock bottom because I realized I hadn't been able to enjoy her or my childhood," she says. "I was beyond helping myself and needed to change my life."
Robinson left her first Body Confident seminar vowing to restructure her mind, body and spirit. Specifically, she wanted to work on her lack of confidence and chronic low-grade depression, traits shared with her late mother. Robinson says the program enabled her to come out of the depression by showing her how to direct energy away from her physical obsessions. "Once I got past caring about my appearance, there was so much in life that I could let in and enjoy. After Body Confident, I acknowledged this part of me that has fire and desire," she exalts. "I don't let fear stand in my way anymore. That initiative was there all along, but I didn't see it because I was caught up in depression."
Robinson took action by organizing a book club to engage her mind and build a better support system. Physically, she decided to set more specific goals than going to the gym five days a week. So she and a friend trained for and completed a triathalon in 1997. Then, a year after attending her second Body Confident workshop, she crossed the finish line of a 560-mile AIDS bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Robinson later came full circle in her recovery from her mother's death. She shared a posthumous letter with fellow participants in Tucson that she had written to her mother. "My letter to my mother tells her about all the things I enjoy now," explains Robinson. "I've reached a point in my life that I didn't have with her. I can give my children the joy of life now because I have it myself."
"The more I believed in myself, the more I felt like I could take care of myself, and the more I felt like my body wasn't so bad."
- Mary Jo Castor, Baltimore
For years, Castor knew something wasn't right about her body image. "Every time I looked in the mirror, all I saw were two fat thighs," she recalls. "I went to Body Confident because I had to come to peace with my body."
In a 1997 journal, Castor, a lifelong fitness advocate, eloquently chronicled her anxiety when delving into body-image issues at her first Body Confident and the benefits derived from doing so: "[The program] was my diving board into midlife. I realized that how I feel about my body doesn't have anything to do with my body. When you dive deeply and then resurface, take that first gasp of air and look around, everything appears clean and fresh and new."
Castor's first step was to "start paying more attention to what I wanted to do and less to what others wanted me to do," she says, recalling Kearney-Cooke's advice to start focusing on her own needs -- even if it meant taking time away from family and friends for a while. Castor consulted a nutritionist, and today, she weight trains regularly with her husband, eats a healthier diet and focuses on the new woman she has discovered.
Nowadays, when Castor happens upon a mirror, she's likely to overlook those thighs. "I go past that now," she says. "Mostly what I see is that I'm really strong."
"I started bike racing."
- Beth McGilley, Ph.D., Wichita, Kan.
The youngest of five children, McGilley lost her mother to suicide when McGilley was just 16. "Being the hero child was my role," she says of the years before and after her mother killed herself. "I was a helper and a caretaker and was carrying burdens for everyone else, so I was not meant to want for much."
The Body Confident workshop, along with therapy, has enabled McGilley to give herself priority. When another Body Confident participant saw her in a Spinning class in 1997 and suggested she try bike racing, McGilley quickly latched onto the idea. "I had been overgiving and not tending to my own life, so one of my goals was to be deliberate about bike racing," she says.
After training, McGilley joined a local team in Wichita and entered her first race in Oklahoma City. "Bike racing provided me a medium to work through life's challenges, including the emotional experiences I had to confront with my recent divorce," she says. "Riding against 20-30 mph wind gives you a sense of knowing your wherewithal -- pushing yourself beyond a place you didn't think you could go. Biking has made me feel stronger about my body and myself."
In her first bike race in 1998, McGilley came in fourth in the road portion of a three-part stage race. She's been racing ever since.
"I decided to run a half-marathon."
- Arlene Lance, Plainsboro, N.J.
"To be honest, I didn't expect to get anything out of the program. I just wanted to go to a spa," says Lance of attending Body Confident in 1997. "Fortunately, it was much more than I expected."
Lance recalls SHAPE editor in chief Barbara Harris motivating the group by telling them to "love your body for what it can do for you."
"That inspired me," remembers Lance. "I always felt I had below-average physical ability, and I felt rather weak physically. So, at that first Body Confident workshop, I really pushed myself: I ran. I took Spinning. I went to three exercise classes. It felt good and it built my confidence."
When she returned to New Jersey, Lance decided to train specifically for half-marathon running. "I did it, 13.1 miles, in Philadelphia," she reports. "Since I've been training and competing, I feel better. I'm more athletic, stronger. I view my body for what it can do for me."
That confidence has trickled into other areas of Lance's life. "At my first Body Confident seminar, I had just started back to school for an associate degree in business and wasn't too sure about finishing," says Lance. "I really believe that finishing the half-marathon changed me. When my self-esteem was low, I had a hard time following things from start to finish. But I didn't quit school [she earned her degree last year], and now I'm hoping to go for a bachelor's degree in finance."
"I learned to fight my disease."
- Tammy Faughnan, Union, N.J.
In February 1997, Faughnan was diagnosed with Lyme disease, an inflammatory disorder usually caused by a bite from a deer tick. The disease and the rigorous antibiotic treatment used to treat the disease caused her to lose muscle tone, gain 35 pounds, and endure debilitating arthritis, headaches and overwhelming fatigue.
"I practically lost control of my body," she says. "It was a rude awakening when my body would not perform the way I wanted it to."
Faughnan attended Body Confident hoping to learn healthy strategies for dealing with the disease. "Before the program, my body image was poor," she recalls. "I needed to do something -- even though the weight gain was only part of how I viewed my body. It wasn't the major factor; getting through each day was, being able to move my arms and legs and function in daily life was."
At Body Confident, Faughnan learned how to take baby steps toward exercising again. "At one time I thought, 'If I can only walk a block, why bother?'" she says. Then, while walking one morning with the group, she was encouraged just to move within her limits, instead of pushing too much or, worse, giving up altogether.
She took the advice to heart. "Right when the Lyme's was diagnosed, my husband and I went to the shore. I couldn't walk, so he just parked the car by the water," she says. "A year later, after Body Confident, when we went again, I walked the boardwalk, four miles, and it brought tears to my eyes.
"Through the support of the other women in the group, I learned not to strive for the body I had when I was 21, but just to have a healthy body at 40," she says. "Body Confident made me aware of how much control I have over my life and my body in spite of the disease."
"I learned to listen to my husband."
- Chandra Cowen, Carmel, Ind.
"Several years ago, I felt the same about my body as I do today. Physically, there are things I would like to accomplish," says Cowen. "But as far as the inside and how I feel - that has changed the most."
Recent years have wrought vast personal changes on Cowen's family. In 1997, a family friend died in a car accident. Through the grieving process, Cowen found that she was listening to her husband more during tense moments, rather than being quick to anger as she once was -- a skill she's worked at diligently.
Cowen's new approach is thanks in part to Kearney-Cooke's guidance in group sessions. "Body Confident helped me learn to communicate with my husband better, and now I let him get things off his chest," she says. "That helps me because I don't get stressed out just assuming he's upset with me."
Fewer relationship struggles have made Cowen into a calmer person, one in control of how she feels when things go awry. "Now I have other outlets when I get stressed, like spending time with my kids, riding my bicycle or working in the yard, which gives me a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment.
"Exercise helps, too," she contemplates. "I'm not exactly where I want to be [with my weight], but I feel a lot better about myself on the inside. I've grown a lot."