The Peer Body Project
The Peer Body Project was born from researchers at Stanford University and the University of Texas at Austin who looked at the evidence behind different body acceptance training models with the goal of developing a preventative program to fight eating disorders in women. Over time, their research has led them to develop a dissonance-based body acceptance model that is implemented by peers in four, one-hour-long sessions. When the researchers followed up with the participants three years later, they found a 60% reduction in eating disorders. The program can be expanded or compacted to fit into different numbers of sessions, and the researchers are working on developing scripts for men and LGBTQ+ identifying members as well. The Body Project started as an independent research project, and has since been bought by multiple nonprofits. Most recently, the Body Project was acquired by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
The peer based-model has been implemented at universities across the United States and the world, and now has come to the University of Michigan. Over the course of two days, six students and seven psychologists from the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) came together to work with a certified Body Project trainer to learn how to implement and facilitate groups. The psychologists from CAPS will oversee the program, train future peer leaders, and be able to direct students to professional help if needed. The peer leaders hope to hold groups for women across campus, in dorms, sororities, clubs, and more.
The science behind the dissonance-based training is rooted in how our brains do not like when we think and act in different ways. If we say and think something enough to the point that we believe it, our bodies will adapt and act in a way that matches what we believe. For example, if you think that junk food is unhealthy but you eat Doritos for every meal, you are in a state of cognitive dissonance. You will either stop eating Doritos, or you’ll convince yourself that Doritos are healthy. This theory was first investigated in 1957 by social psychologist Leon Festinger. The challenge is to fight ingrained beliefs, like believing that being skinny makes your life better, and that’s where the Body Project comes in.
Over the course of the four meetings, participants will come to define the “appearance ideal,” and talk about why that is not what women should be striving for. This appearance ideal is defined by members of the group, and can include attributes from long legs to a curvy waist. Exercises and discussions prompt participants to talk about the costs of trying to attain this perfect body, and why they should instead strive for the “healthy ideal.” The healthy ideal is supposed to be any attributes, physical or psychological, that make you feel best. The aim is to create a dissonance by having group members repeatedly talk about how the appearance ideal is negative, even though they may believe that being thin will solve all of their problems. The hope, then, is to have group members convince themselves through talking and homework exercises that they do not need the “perfect” body. The homework assignments are short, and involve tasks such as writing a letter to a teenage girl about loving herself or listing out psychical traits you like about your body.
The groups will be led by three CAPS-trained peer leaders. Three seems like a lot of leaders in a group that may only have 6-8 members, but the idea is that the peer leaders also participate in the group by sharing and completing their own homework assignments. Instead of talking at the members, they are involved in the group as well. The program provides a script to leaders, making it easy for universities to continue training peer leaders as the projects grow.
To get the program off the ground, the peer leaders of Michigan’s Body Project are asking female identifying students to volunteer to complete the four-meeting program. These women do not need to have any experience with eating disorders, they just need to be open to improving their body acceptance. If you’re interested, please email Patricia O’Malley at email@example.com or check out http://www.bodyprojectsupport.org/home.