From The Kitchener-Waterloo Record
Thirty teenage girls laughed out loud when told they might someday grow to appreciate "love handles" on their future partners.
Nibbling frozen yogurt and sipping diet cola over their lunch hour, the Grade 8 students at Centennial Public School were taking part in a seven-week Teen Esteem program, offered at area public schools by community volunteers and the Waterloo Region community health department.
The "love handles" conversation followed the viewing of a collection of Kellogg's commercials encouraging women to "look good on your own terms."
"I think a lot of teen girls are really obsessed with their looks," said Michelle An, 13.
While the teens took in the message about being less critical of their own bodies, several giggled at the on-screen portrayal of a slack-skinned man standing on a beach, his pudgy stomach rolling over his tiny bathing suit.
As it turned out, the actor, despite his slightly doughy appearance, is a healthy weight for his body type, explained volunteer Tracy Annett, a civil engineer with Conestoga Rovers and Associates.
Perfect-looking people, the kind usually shown in commercials, are few and far between, she said. Even magazine models, the students learned, have to have imperfections airbrushed from the printed page.
"We try to get the message out that the average female is actually a size 8 to 10 and she weighs 130 pounds," Annett said. "She's not a 90-pound unhealthy person."
Teen Esteem was launched in Waterloo Region in 1997 in the wake of a national report showing that girls' self-confidence and aspirations inexplicably plummet as they enter the teen years. This school year, the program is offered at 10 elementary schools.
By targeting Grade 7 and 8 girls, who are handpicked by teachers to participate, the program aims to stop the problem before it gets out of hand. Weekly sessions look at career choices and goal-setting.
Body image was not originally part of the program, but was added when organizers heard girls consistently criticizing their own appearance.
"Some of my friends, they'll be really upset and keep saying really negative things about themselves and I keep telling them to stop because it's not true," said Lisa Medeiros, 13, talking about how the Teen Esteem sessions changed her attitudes.
Lisa said the program taught her to look to the future and consider a wide spectrum of career options.
Women from all walks of life volunteer their lunch hours for two weeks to provide a variety of strong role models for the teens.
"There is recognition that not everyone is going to be a rocket scientist," said Carol Popovic, a public health nurse with the community health department. "They do have other strengths that they can build on."
Lindsey Quinn, a project leader with Manulife, was a volunteer for the first time this year. She described her involvement as fascinating, but scary.
She doesn't feel like a role model: "I feel like I'm more there to validate that they're OK."
As the program wrapped up with a final pizza party, teacher Bev Robertson said she was excited about the change she saw in students.
"I certainly hear comments in my two homerooms," said Robertson, who teaches family studies at Centennial. "Teen esteem comes up, self-esteem, self-confidence. . . . The words are woven into their conversations."
Another session is offered in the winter months, but demand is high and resources are limited.
Meanwhile, "the number of boys that asked if they could be involved in the program was astronomical," Robertson said.
as of January 6, 2001
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