From flashy magazine covers guaranteeing a perfect ‘summer body’ to the endless sea of flawless photos on social media, the pressure to change our bodies is everywhere. For Anna Ciao, a Western associate professor of Psychology, the solution lies in intervening at the individual level where people can challenge assumptions about body image they didn’t even know they held.
That’s the mission behind the EVERYbody Project, group-based body image intervention developed by the Eating and Body Image lab at Western, that provides “access to evidence-based interventions for eating, weight, and body image disturbances,” according to its website.
As the lab enters its sixth year, they had the opportunity to present their most recent findings at the annual International Conference on Eating Disorders.
Their study found the EVERYbody Project was effective in providing a diverse array of participants with the tools to resist harmful body image standards.
Ciao’s interest in body image and the societal pressures that surround it started years earlier when she was in college. During her time at Trinity University, she worked on The Body Project, an eating disorder prevention program, but found it lacking in inclusivity.
The Body Project focused on the experience of primarily on the experiences of white cisgender women, which left out a significant part of the population, Ciao said.
This idea stayed with her long after she graduated, and when she began teaching at Western in 2014, she started work on the EVERYbody Project.
“We wanted to create a program that was all-inclusive… and we also wanted to take on some of the larger influences that create this cultural ideal of a ‘perfect’ body,” Ciao said.
Using focus groups and discussions with students, she refined the project into what it is today. Ultimately, Ciao said she wanted to challenge the idea that there is a narrow slice of bodies deemed ‘worthy’ in our society.
“There is no person who escapes this relentless pressure to change your body or appearance,” Ciao said. “That’s such a universal experience.”
Bringing the Project to Western
Although the project has gone through slightly different iterations since its creation, the basic structure has remained the same.
Student volunteers sign up to participate in two group sessions over the course of two days where they discuss and dissect their perception of the ‘ideal’ body while confronting how that relates to their relationship with their own body.
Through a combination of self-disclosure, roleplaying, writing exercises and videos, student leaders help participants root out internalized beliefs and build community through shared experiences.
Kendall Lawley, a 2016 Western alumna, co-author of the recent research and former research assistant for Ciao, remembered how powerful it was to witness these sessions first-hand.
“Seeing people recognize and deconstruct these notions about body image they didn’t even know they had is a really unique experience,” Lawley said.
One exercise that has stuck with her involved participants writing a letter to their younger selves about how to avoid societal body-image pressure and love themselves as they are. It’s this type of self-reflection and self-love that the EVERYbody Project is based around, Lawley said.
Although the groups were comprised of people from all different backgrounds, there was still a sense of commonality, said Savannah Roberts, a 2016 Western alumna who also helped co-author the recent research and worked as a researcher assistant for Ciao.
“Whether or not they had an eating disorder,” Roberts said. “Everyone could understand how damaging it was to feel like your body was wrong in some way, which was both empowering and heartbreaking.”
Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, the EVERYbody project is already looking to evolve beyond Western’s campus.
Seeing people recognize and deconstruct these notions about body image they didn’t even know they had is a really unique experience.
“We’ve been able to show that the EVERYbody project is successful in its goal, so the question becomes ‘How do we get this out into the world?’” Janae Brewster, one of the co-authors, said.
Throughout the past year, Ciao has been working on refining an online version of the project that will improve accessibility. Already, the University of Michigan has used an early version of the online project, Ciao said.
Although there are still changes to be made before the online version can be used in a research setting, the team plans to have it ready for trials this coming fall quarter.
Along with an online iteration, the project is looking to expand into Shuksan Middle School within the next year.
“If we’re really talking about preventing eating disorders, then the younger age range is where that’s going to occur,” Ciao said. “Intervening at the most vulnerable point, where puberty is shaping the body and social pressures are so intense, is critical.”
All in all, Ciao said she feels hopeful for the future of the project.
“The growth of the EVERYbody Project feels very possible at Western,” Ciao said. “It feels like a place where this type of transformation can live and breathe.”
More information about the EVERYbody project and the research it has produced can be found on its website.