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Dr. Casper: Women shouldn't feel that they all have to look like Twiggy

STANFORD -- When graduate student Sonja Kuftinec read that Dr. Regina Casper, the new Stanford University president's wife, was an expert on eating disorders, she promptly asked Casper to participate in Total Exposure, an original production addressing body image.

"There is a real need on campus for women's voices to be heard," said Kuftinec, founder of the Women's Performance Collective, a student dramatic group. "We want to raise issues through performance and be able to discuss them afterward."

The show ran at the Nitery on campus Dec. 2-5. Each performance was followed by a discussion led by faculty and members of support groups. Kuftinec asked Casper to lead a discussion after one of the shows.

"She was the first one to respond," Kuftinec said. "And she was really very enthusiastic about it."

Casper, a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine, spoke after the Dec. 3 noon performance. The show included poems, songs and articles crafted from the performers' personal experiences and through their research, and ended with a celebration of women's bodies, whatever their form.

"It was so wonderful to see so many different faces and different bodies up there having fun and being comfortable with themselves," Casper said while sitting on stage with the cast after the show. "Such diversity is what makes life interesting. Wouldn't it be boring if everyone on the street looked like Twiggy?"

An audience member asked Casper why, with all the opportunities that have opened up to them in recent years, women are still so concerned about their physical appearance.

"There is greater competition," Casper answered. "Now that there are more opportunities, there are also more expectations. Women not only have to be intelligent and bright, but they also have to be well-dressed and slim."

The image of women in the media has moved away from the "frail- looking Twiggy" to the "androgynous female," she said. Women now want to be very lean, when physiologically, women naturally do have more body fat than men.

"There are many aspects in this culture that push women to perfection," Casper said. "The media perpetuates stereotypes and prejudices. The outside world pushes people to diet, triggering eating disorders - which are also based on personal unresolved emotional conflicts."

Parents have a crucial role in helping their children develop positive body images, Casper said. Parents should have open communication with their children and try to understand their children's concerns.

"If parents raise their children to be self-confident, they [children] won't feel that they have to increase their self-esteem through dieting," she said.

The problem starts when children are put on diets.

"Currently, diets are the catalyst," she said. "If they were not dieting and losing weight in the first place, they would not develop an eating disorder."

Casper participates in as many dorm discussions about eating disorders as her busy schedule will permit. Many students have told her they believe eating disorders are more prevalent at Stanford than in the nation as a whole, but she said there are no studies to confirm that..

"Once, the belief was that anorexia nervosa was a middle/upper class disorder, but we have found that it effects all socio-economic groups," Casper said. "Food has become an inexpensive commodity to be used for purposes other than nourishment."

People with anorexia nervosa - intentional starvation - seem to function in daily life just as well as anyone else, she said. She hopes to learn through her research why they do not seem to tire out as much as they should, given their lack of nutrition.

Total Exposure was "both gripping and witty," Casper said. "By acting out stereotypes and prejudices they [the performers] challenged them, and they did it (in a manner that was) very moving but also very funny.

"People were able to laugh about it; it was in no way hostile or aggressive."


(This story was written by Jane Bahk, a news writing intern at the Stanford News Service.)


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