Christina Verzijl adds "long eyelashes" to the list of "appearance ideas." Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Christina Verzijl adds "long eyelashes" to the list of "appearance ideas." Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

Girl gets bullied about her body, girl hates her body, girl finishes high school and graduates from college. That could be the end of the story. But not for me.

I decided to put my foot down and stop the cycle of body shaming in my community. Step one: implement a body acceptance program.

My name is Christina Verzijl, and I recently launched Body Project 4 High Schools (BP4HS) in San Antonio, a program out of Trinity University that I’m currently trying to fund through various efforts. More on that later, let me start at the beginning:

Superficially, one wouldn’t think I fit the mold of someone pushing for the positive body image movement that you may have seen spreading on social media: I graduated from Alamo Heights High School, I graduated from and am currently employed by Trinity University, and I have a healthy Body Mass Index – a recipe for a healthy body image.

But there are other ingredients.

As any other Trinity graduate will tell you, Trinity helped lead me to find my passion. During my time as a student, I worked in Dr. Carolyn Becker’s Body Image Lab, as a psychology undergraduate researcher. Although I found each of the many lab projects interesting, one in particular inspired me to create a dream and follow through with it: the Body Project Collaborative.

My own past experience with limited body confidence acted as the catalyst to my passion for the Body Project, but it was the transformation I saw within the hearts and minds of participants that truly inspired me. Females typically enter the program feeling uncomfortable with their own bodies and the unrealistic standards society sets for them. But when women leave the Body Project program, they are empowered activists for the positive body image movement who feel equipped to stand up against the unrealistic beauty standards surrounding them.

Rose Wallace, 17, (center) describes the process she goes through to maintain her straight, blonde hair to the group. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Saint Mary’s Hall student Rose Wallace, 17, (center) describes some of the emotional, physical, and monetary costs associated with the pursuit of an unrealistic ideal of “beauty.” Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The Body Project is a positive body image and cognitive dissonance-based eating disorder prevention program, which has been run on Trinity’s campus for more than a decade. If you think back to your “Intro to Psychology” courses from freshman year of college, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort experienced when one’s behaviors and thoughts are misaligned. To reduce this discomfort, individuals typically adjust their thoughts to align with their behaviors. Thus, the Body Project asks those participating to act and talk against society’s unrealistic beauty ideal. This disconnect between their thoughts and actions in the group sessions induce cognitive dissonance, which helps reduce their personal internalization of society’s ideal.

In order to see these amazing transformations outside of the Trinity campus, I set out to create my own job and implement the Body Project in San Antonio high schools. To make my dream a reality, I started a Body Project account through the university, created a budget and raised funding to support my own salary and the Body Project 4 High Schools (BP4HS) program.

“Body image dissatisfaction increases risk for a host of negative outcomes in adolescent girls including depression, suicide attempts, eating disorders, weight gain, decreased physical activity and lower self-esteem,” Becker said.

BP4HS targets adolescent girls before these negative outcomes can surface.

“The Body Project is supported by more research than any other body image program developed to date, which is why I am so excited to see Trinity share our work in this area with local high schools,” she said.

The program consists of four, one-hour sessions spaced one week apart. A group of six to 10 girls come into a room with chairs placed in a circular formation. The first session begins with a “biggest body image pet peeve” ice breaker, continues with two participant-generated lists of 1) the physical aspects of society’s “perfect woman,” which BP4HS calls the “appearance ideal” and 2) the costs or downsides to constantly pursuing this ideal.

Some of the pet peeves and appearance ideals are things you might never think of – especially if you’re a man. The board quickly fills up with classic terms like “breast size,” “flat tummy,” and “straight teeth” as well as newer, more specific ones like “bikini bridge,” “thigh gap,” “poke-less nipples,” and “hand veins.”

Session 1 ends with girls making a personal statement as to why pursuing the appearance ideal does not make sense for them. In between each session, girls are asked to complete small homework activities shown to help increase their confidence.

Christina Verzijl leads a demonstration session of the Body Project 4 High Schools at Trinity University. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Christina Verzijl leads a demonstration session of the Body Project 4 High Schools at Trinity University. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Homework activities ask girls to speak and act against society’s appearance-ideal in a variety of ways. After session 1, girls are asked to complete the “Mirror Exercise.” The Mirror Exercise consists of standing in front of a mirror and creating a 10-item list of characteristics the girls are satisfied with. Some young women need several minutes to complete this task – but everyone can find 10. This activity helps them to recognize some of their many positive attributes.

The girls are then encouraged to include a combination of physical, emotional and social qualities on their lists. The inclusion of different types of characteristics emphasizes the theme that all aspects that make up a person contribute to their beauty. Beauty is not merely defined by one’s physical appearance, but rather acts as a combination of their full person, inside and out.

As a past participant and Judson High School dancer explains, “It’s not all about the outer you, it’s also about having a pretty mind, a pretty heart, and a pretty soul.”

Alexandra Gamboa, a 19-year-old Trinity Student, sits in on a quick Body Project 4 High Schools session. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Alexandra Gamboa (left), a 19-year-old Trinity Student, sits in on a quick Body Project 4 High Schools session. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Mirror Exercise lists always show great diversity from girls liking the length of their hair to the strength of their legs to the curve of their spine to the fact that they are a committed friend. The mirror exercise is a fun start for BP4HS in that it shows the girls that different parts of their bodies serve invaluable functions that they may take for granted. Once the ladies begin opening up, other homework assignments become more fun, uplifting, and empowering for the girls.

For their second homework activity, girls are asked to write a letter to a younger body-conscious girl in which they explain all of the costs associated with obsessively pursuing the appearance ideal. Girls come up with extremely insightful explanations to younger girls based off of their own past experiences and discussions during their first session.

“It is okay to make positive changes in your life. However, make sure that you are changing to please yourself and not others. You don’t have to have the perfect hair, eyes, boobs, butt, face, legs, or waist to be beautiful,” wrote another Judson student. “What makes you beautiful is how much you love and accept yourself. Just because you look different than someone who gets a lot of attention, it does not mean you aren’t worth being loved. So, don’t go out and kill yourself on the treadmill or quit eating your favorite foods. In the long run it will make you miserable. Just have fun and enjoy the positive people around you. Everything will be okay, I promise.”

The BP4HS program will cost a total of $57,000 to administer through the summer of 2016. To date, I have raised $29,775 from caring individuals and organizations to support the BP4HS program, recruited four San Antonio High Schools to participate, and facilitated 14 groups totaling 121 girls from Alamo Heights, Keystone, and Judson high schools. This summer, a group of Saint Mary’s Hall girls are participating in the BP4HS program in the same Trinity research lab where it all began.

Allie Cochran, 17, (right) talks about how long it takes some women to do their hair every morning as Kristy Hamilton, 21, (center) and Rose Wallace, 17 listen. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Saint Mary’s Hall student Allie Cochran, 17, (right) talks about body image while Kristy Hamilton, 21, (center) and Rose Wallace, 17, listen and respond. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

As a way to reach more funding, Body Project 4 High Schools entered to win a $10,000 grant from KIND Snacks. In an effort to make the world a “KINDer” place, at the end of each month KIND awards a $10,000 grant to the “KIND Cause” that receives the most votes. You can help BP4HS win July’s vote and reach our goal of empowering more than 700 San Antonio girls. All you have to do is click the link here, create an account with your email, and vote.

This project is all about increasing girls’ confidence and self-esteem during the life chapter when both are relatively limited. The program provides girls a safe environment to talk about their experiences. It gives them the tools to fight against society’s limited and confining definition of beauty. Because in the end, girls need someone to validate that you don’t have to have a tiny waist and jiggle-less arms to be beautiful and that they are not alone in their feelings about body image.
Essentially, my goal is help San Antonio girls understand that they are perfect just as they are regardless of the shape of their hips or the number they see when they step on the scale. Their beauty is not defined by their outward appearance; their beauty is defined by their words and actions. They are beautiful because they are themselves and once they realize that, they’ll have the infinite power to change the world.

“Beauty is temporary,” wrote yet another Judson student. “One day we will grow old and wrinkly, but that’s okay because we get to look back at the happy memories we made. However, one thing that isn’t temporary is happiness, because that’s a forever thing.”

*Featured/top image: Christina Verzijl adds “long eyelashes” to the list of “appearance ideas.” Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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Christina Verzijl is the founder of Body Project 4 High Schools at Trinity University.