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Arkansas Tackles Eating Disorders

Last week, I was honored to participate in a number of creative events in Conway, Arkansas to celebrate National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. A dedicated and diverse group of faculty, health professionals and students from the University of Central Arkansas and Hendrix College along with dancers and choreographers from Atlanta all came together to raise awareness of eating disorders in the community.  The effort was the brainchild of UCA's Art History Professor Gayle Seymour and Sue Schroeder, artistic director for CORE Performance dance troupe.  

Here’s the Backstory:

As you know if you read my blog, I wrote a children’s book called Full Mouse, Empty Mouse about two stressed out mice. The boy mouse uses food to comfort his feelings, while the girl mouse stops eating as a way to make herself small and safe from danger. Other mice bully the boy mouse for being Fat, while the girl mouse is told she looks great! Thankfully, their wise aunt mouse helps them learn to listen to their bodies and find healthier ways to deal with their feelings.

Several months ago I learned that Atlanta's CORE Performance Company had created a dance program for children based on the story, and they’d be presenting it to thousands of grade school kids in Conway, Arkansas. Last week I had the honor of watching these talented dancers take key concepts from the story and convey them through movement, colorful costumes and an interactive story.

Three dancers played the roles of the Heart, the Tummy and the Head of a little girl who was being bullied at school. The girl feels sad and hurt, and her Heart forces her Tummy to eat and eat in order to make the bad feelings go away.

Throughout the show, the characters stop and speak with the audience, asking them for advice about how the girl should deal with her feelings and with the bully.

What was most gratifying to see was that the kids GOT IT! Even young children can understand Emotional Eating, a concept which is absent from programs for childhood obesity. Since obesity prevention programs are typically developed by dietitians and physicians, the social-psychological piece is often missing. But these gifted dancers were able to convey important information about the importance of “Listening to your Body” (e.g. don’t stuff your belly when you feel sad!) and “Talking about your feelings” (e.g. there are healthy ways to cope with painful emotions).

Over the course of the week, these dancers reached almost two thousands 3rd and 4th graders at seven schools. The children were energized and delighted by the program! And I believe that because the messages were conveyed through a creative medium that tapped into universal emotions, the messages will not soon be forgotten. I have no doubt that this program planted some life-changing seeds in these kids, and perhaps in their teachers as well.

Dr. Seymour and other devoted professors, students and artists created a number of other activities devoted to eating disorder awareness over the course of the week: more public dance performances and a photography exhibit of teen portraits. Theater students from Hendrix staged short surprise skits on the UCA campus about eating disorders. I spoke with grade school teachers about how they can help their students and themselves have a balanced approach to food. I also spoke with students at UCA about how to have a healthy relationship with food amongst the food, body image and diet pressures of college life.

All in all, the week of activities reached and impacted thousands of people.I am heartened to think how many children, college students and adults were exposed to some vital and potentially life-saving information. I look forward to seeing what amazing things grow from the seeds that were planted this week!  Thank you to Gayle and Sue and countless others for being the heart, soul, brains (and tummy) behind this exciting project! 

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