Kjerstin Gruys looked out at a sea of teenage girls at Hingham’s Notre Dame Academy and made a simple request: Describe a girl that is perfect.
The answers came timidly at first, but soon started to erupt from the audience – thin, tall, with pretty hair, someone who has a boyfriend, is good at everything, and is liked by everyone. And up popped a giant image of Barbie on the projector screen.
Gruys had a question for the girls: Would you want to be friends with Barbie? The unanimous answer was “no.”
Gruys, an author and activist who is working on a doctorate in sociology at UCLA, makes a living opening the eyes of young women, talking about the ideas behind body image in the context of her own struggle with anorexia. Gruys once lived without mirrors for a year, learning to love her body without the pressure of an image.
The high school-focused talk was an emotional one at first for Gruys, who usually makes presentations to college-age women.
“I think the reason it was different for me was because I was talking to the age of women that are the age when this stuff hit me,” she said in an interview after the speech. “And that was kind of, I don’t know, I felt a bit of emotion in that. Some of the girls are in the audience crying. It’s a big issue.”
Gruys’s visit was part of a wellness curriculum launched by the school in September. The latest iteration of the school’s Student Support Team programming, the initiative seeks to delve into the subjects of body image, self-esteem, and beauty ideals.
Though public schools generally are lagging in this area, Notre Dame is one of several private schools leading the way on wellness education, one that includes a frank discussion of eating disorders along with the factors that lead to them.
The Notre Dame curriculum is already popular. Thirteen girls are enrolled in the first “Women and Balance” class, open to juniors and seniors, with hopes of expanding it to other students.
“We’ve put forth these initiatives because we want to give it more time,” said principal Kathleen Colin. “It’s a critical issue for young women and goes along with building confidence in young women and how they feel about themselves.”
The program has already unlocked a new understanding of beauty ideals for many of the girls. In the first few weeks of class, girls watched a video produced by Dove, in which women described themselves to a sketch artist who couldn’t see them. Poor body image created unrealistic sketches, and that was a revelation, students said.
Girls were then asked to go for a day without looking in a mirror and describe the experience. The students covered up mirrors in the girls’ bathrooms around school. Afterward, while sitting in a circle in their Women and Balance class on a Monday afternoon, the girls laughed about how habitual looking in the mirror has become. They said they felt self-conscious the entire day of the experiment, worrying about what they looked like and realizing how much importance they had given to their appearance.
“Every time I had nothing to do, a thought would pass in my head – ‘What do I look like right now?’” said Maeghan Flanagan, a 16-year-old from Plymouth. “By the time I got home I had to look at myself, I just had to.
“I looked at myself in the mirror and I was like, ‘Oh, I psyched myself out. I didn’t look as bad as I thought I did.’ ”
‘My friend . . . is thin and very pretty, but instead of saying those things, I try to focus on the mental stuff.’
“It was very eye-opening . . . we look at ourselves as a reflection of how others look at us,” said 17-year-old McKenzie Duggan, from Canton. “I found myself wondering a lot of the time, ‘I wonder how she looks at me?’ ”
The class has even altered the way some students approach these topics with friends and family.
“My friend has been going through body issues recently. She is thin and very pretty, but instead of saying those things, I try to focus on the mental stuff,” said Olivia DiPietrantonio, 17, of Scituate. “She’s a really nice person, she’s great with kids, she’s very friendly and charismatic. I say those things so she doesn’t think the body is what’s important.”
Whether the messages will have a lasting impact is hard to predict, administrators said, but they feel the topic is worth discussing.
“They are reflecting,” said assistant principal Barbara Mitchell. “It without question resonates with them, and for many of them it will come up somewhere along the way.”
At Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, this type of curriculum has been offered since the 1980s, with students meeting in smaller groups to discuss social and emotional issues, including media culture and body image.
“There is research to suggest if we don’t take care of kids socially and emotionally, it becomes more challenging to help them academically,” said Heather Sullivan, director of communication at the private school for grades 7 through 12.
In the upper grades at Scituate’s Inly School, which has students up to Grade 8, topics including identity, messages from the media, body image, and eating disorders are covered in the curriculum, and are integrated throughout core classes to broaden subject discussion.
For doctors at Walden Behavioral Care in Braintree, a clinic that treats eating disorders, this kind of curriculum is crucial.
“I think for schools, it’s as important to them to do that as it is for them to be giving other health lessons,” said Dr. Renee Bazinet Nelson, director of adolescent intensive outpatient programs.
Wellness curriculum is important for both girls and boys, Bazinet Nelson said. Though the ideals of perfection look different, both genders struggle with it.
Walden has developed a school-based eating-disorder curriculum, still in its infancy, to help empower students, staff, and parents to notice the signs of eating disorders and teach those groups how to approach it.
In public schools, meanwhile, many teachers said they aren’t doing enough for this type of curriculum.
Although Wellesley has a mandatory health curriculum for sophomores that touches upon body image and healthy relationships, faculty members say the topic needs to be expanded.
“Right now [body image] is not a prime focus,” said Kathy Brophy, a fitness and health educator at Wellesley High School.
“We just had a training last year with health staff and the nurses and we’re trying to do more,” Brophy said.
In Hanover, Terry Langton, an elementary fitness teacher, said body image is addressed as part of an identity curriculum. But at the middle school, a sharp cut in health education has left educators with approximately six hours of teaching time for fifth-graders to cover all the health topics for the year. In the eighth grade, the annual total grows to six to nine hours.
“There are a lot of health concepts worked into physical education — conflict resolution, those things, but the nitty-gritty of health and nutrition and body image and environment and body systems, all of those things, there is a whole lot cut out,” said Michelle Ireland, a wellness educator at the midde school.
Ireland said new administrators have started to bring back health teachers, and hopes are high that the health education will grow as well.
The state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education lists self-esteem in the criteria for its health framework, said Lauren Greene, a program coordinator with the agency.
Though body image isn’t addressed specifically, nutrition and relationships are included in a larger focus on emotional and physical health, she said. But the standards haven’t been updated since 1999.
Moreover, very few schools maintain a health curriculum with a substantial component on body image and self-esteem, said Maria Melchionda; executive director for the Massachusetts Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance.
“You have [some] school systems where it’s screaming for attention, yet they are so focused on MCAS scores, they don’t give a care on healthy body and healthy body image,” Melchionda said.
For Notre Dame administrators, the curriculum’s importance always goes back to preparing students for adult life.
“We have a responsibility to educate young women in the areas [that impact] women,” said Colin, “addressing very specific topics for their life beyond [Notre Dame Academy].”Jessica Bartlett can be reached at email@example.com.