It’s become a common fact in the body image world — women are unhappy the way they look. In fact, 88 per cent of people worldwide, who were asked if they were satisfied with their looks said they were not, while only 12 per cent of people polled said they were completely satisfied according to a Global Gfk Survey.
Ashley Wanamaker and Carrie Le, both registered provisional psychologists, are hoping to transform the way women in Calgary feel about themselves through a new program called The Body Project.
“[We] really get into how are you experiencing life, because if you’re constantly worried about your appearance … you’re not in the moment — you’re not experiencing life,” says Wanamaker.
I first met Wanamaker and Le at the second annual International Women’s March in Calgary.
Their signs, “Riots not Diets,” caught my attention. We quickly sparked up a conversation about their upcoming work.
The Body Project is a group program focusing on women’s relationship with themselves and their body. The program was developed from eating disorder prevention research, but is marketed towards every women. In group therapy sessions, women come together to discuss how the ideal appearance takes shape in all of their lives.
The ideal appearance is the beauty standard set by mainstream society — a woman must be fit but not too thin, have a big butt accompanied by a small waist and also flaunt their femininity but not be too girly. In other words, it’s an unwinnable race that is undoubtedly harming and even killing some in the process.
“I always joke that this group is so punk rock,” laughs Wanamakers. She has big blue eyes that are set off by her lavender hair. “Because people start noticing and then they get really mad … we all got here for very systematic and oppressive reasons.”
Behind the body project
Wanamaker knows the struggle to accept yourself and your body all too well. She grew up as a child actor, dancer and singer — a triple threat.
“I was always hyper aware of how I looked … I elicited so much attention that I didn’t know what to do with it or want,” she says. “I’m kind of bizarre in that I have eating disorder memories from kindergarten.”
That lifelong struggle eventually took her to various treatment centres around Canada and the United States. She says that although the media may be everyone's first instinct on who to blame for the increase in body dissatisfaction, Wanamaker calls that a scapegoat.
“When I was sick, I was like ‘I’m too smart for this. I’m sick, but this is stupid media doesn’t affect me.’”
She began to realize the internalization of media did play a part, but she still wasn’t convinced that was the full explanation.
Wanamaker had been pursuing a degree in journalism in New York City while receiving help for her eating disorder when she finally got the wake up call she needed.
“There was a 14-year-old girl … she asked me, ‘Do I believe in recovery?’ — I absolutely didn’t, but I couldn’t tell a 14-year-old that.”
She stops and takes a breath.
“She really broke my heart. I was there, I was honestly trying to get better but I was so close to dying — I didn’t feel helped.”
From that moment, she says she just got angry. Moving from New York back to Calgary to recover, Wanamaker decided to pursue psychology as a career.
“[That anger] fueled the rest of my life.”
She moved back to Calgary to get the help she needed. Deciding to take the problem into her own hands, Wanamaker moved to Montreal to finish her undergrad and an honors thesis at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, eventually moving back to Calgary to pursue her master's degree.
Le and Wanamaker met in graduate school at the University of Calgary. After only spending a few hours with the pair, it’s easy to see the two are best friends.
“Since meeting Ashley … I feel like only good things have happened to me and it’s really changed my life,” says Le. “[She’s] really modeled for me what it means to empower and support [each other].”
Le says her personal struggle came from negative, isolating thoughts when she was a teenager.
“I feel like we live in a very non-intuitive world that we’re just supposed to conform [to]. But I had all these ideas when I was young and none of this made sense — I didn’t feel good when I conformed.”
She says boys played a big role in her pursuit of the appearance ideal when she was younger, which didn’t sit right with her as well.
“A lot of my process through The Body Project has been unpacking my ideas, beliefs and experiences wrapped up in these boys. [I realized] it’s not about them, it’s about my relationship with myself.”
The gold of the group
Both Le and Wanamaker participate and use their own personal experiences throughout The Body Project group sessions, but they say the best part is the varying perspectives they get to hear.
“The gold of the group is getting a whole bunch of people in a room and having a space where they feel heard,” says Wanamaker. “There’s no competitiveness, there’s no judgment — it’s just hearing and supporting each other.”
Through four different sessions, women come together to talk about the way they exist within the world. Similarly to group therapy, they are able to share their experiences and vulnerability in a safe space.
The program offers women an outlet where they can vent their frustrations and feel validated in the rat race that is the beauty industry.
“From a personal — or like a more punk rock perspective — it’s getting people to notice … and then empowering them to take back their bodies and take back their space and how they move through this world,” says Wanamaker.
My interview with Wanamaker and Le lasted almost two hours, both bouncing off what the other had just said — clearly this was more than a passion project to them. Their office is on the 25th floor of a skyscraper downtown Calgary. With a view of the sun setting behind the mountains and the light filling the room, the pair begin to tell me how they got here.
“We both took a leap — I did in November, and Carrie did in December — of leaving our consistent pay cheques ... But we just took a leap and did it anyways,” says Wanamaker recalling how they began to work in private practice.
She says she feels a responsibility to do this work because of what she’s gone through throughout her fight to love herself. She’s been in recovery for almost a decade, but says there are still days that she struggles with body acceptance.
“I have a good relationship with my body — I’ve worked on it for a long time — but even since doing this group, my husband has been like, ‘You’re so much more fearless now,’” laughs Wanamaker.
The Body Project has been approved by the Calgary Board of Education and can be implemented in high schools that are interested in the program. The next session of The Body Project will run from April 28 to May 26. For more information on the program visit ashleywanamaker.com or carrie-le.ca
Editor's Note: This story has been modified from its original version to better reflect the source's views.
- By Kendra Crighton