Real Women Project: Women come in all sizes

Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2000

FEDERAL WAY, Wash. -- Rather than the tall, skinny models that dominate fashion magazines, the bronze sculptures of the Real Women Project feature women of all shapes and sizes.

Dr. Barbara Levy said the 13 figures showcased at her Seattle-area obstetrics and gynecology office, as well as other health clinics around the country, show women that being beautiful does not necessarily mean losing weight.

''This is what real women look like,'' said Levy, who helped create the Real Women Project with her mentor, Donna Brooks, and a psychotherapist, Cathy Conheim.

''We only know what women's bodies look like through magazines and compare ourselves to that. It's not real.''

In contrast to images of airbrushed women who have paid thousands of dollars for plastic surgery, the 9-inch tall sculptures are women boldly baring muscles, wrinkles, sagging skin and cellulite.

''I think it makes a powerful statement,'' Conheim said. ''The statement is this is reality. This is diversity. This is who we are.''

And reality is beautiful, said artist T.J. Dixon of Encinitas, Calif., who was asked to sculpt the 13 nonprofessional models, ages 2 through 75.

''Each woman really was, in her own right, perfect,'' Dixon said. ''They started seeing themselves through the artist in me. They were looking at their body in a way they never had before.''

Dixon spent about a month on each sculpture to capture the detail and emotion of each woman. They stand in their own chosen poses. Karen, 35, holds her pregnant stomach, while 14-year-old Lily sprawls along the ground. Some smile, some don't.

Dixon said all were initially self-conscious, but the sculptures convey each woman's sense of peace and confidence.

Dixon said she hopes women can spot themselves in one of the sculptures and appreciate their own beauty.

''I hope to start a tiny revolution,'' she said.

So far, women have been responding, said Levy, medical director of the Women's Center here, south of Seattle, where statues are featured in her private office, the waiting room, hallway, the examining rooms and even in the bathroom.

''It makes them feel valued,'' she said. ''At least twice a day, a patient will tell me that she loves them. I think it makes women feel real.''

Not all responses to the sculptures have been positive. Levy recalled a male physician who criticized them as a way to promote fatness.

''He is the whole reason we started this,'' Levy said. ''His vision of beauty is very narrow.''

The project began as a conversation at a 1997 dinner party at the San Diego home of Conheim and Brooks, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist.

They discussed the obsession with dieting, the prevalence of eating disorders among women and the billion-dollar cosmetics industry.

''We were talking about the next century in women's health, and if we could change one thing, what would that be,'' Conheim said. ''We looked at the whole century and women's obsession with weight. If we could take on one issue, it would be to widen the lens to more dimensions of beauty.''

Levy said some of her patients were put off by her thin, fit appearance. She wanted something to show that she understood not every woman looked like her.

The idea for the Real Women Project was born.

Dixon was asked to sculpt 13 recruited models for the 13 moon and menstrual cycles. Conheim chose the women to represent a spectrum of ages, races and sizes.

Poet River Malcolm of Orcas Island wrote a poem for every sculpture.

The Real Women Project is a limited edition. Only 35 sets of the sculptures will be sold, for $50,000 each.

Levy bought the first set for her office. The sculptures blend in with the soft lighting, fountains and soothing music around the center.

''Women hate pelvic exams,'' Levy said. ''They hate getting weighed. I wanted to do everything I could to make it more comfortable, more homey, more empowering.''

Another set is featured in the Changing Face of Women's Health, a traveling exhibition that opened in February 1999 at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore and is currently at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

The exhibit focuses solely on women's health and the sculptures are a popular feature in the section on body image, said Andrea Dixon, project manager of the Women's Health Project and the traveling exhibit.

''Women's health lends itself to art,'' she said. ''Health is very personal.''

Conheim has expanded the Real Women Project beyond the sculptures under the nonprofit Athena Foundation, which she co-founded.

Conheim started self-esteem seminars where the sculptures can be purchased. Other women were inspired to write books, create CDs, videos and a game based on the idea that beauty does not depend on being a size 0. All are featured on the Real Women Project's Web site, which Conheim hoped would help start a national dialogue on women's beauty.

''Self acceptance and self love are the foundation for a healthy mind, body and spirit,'' Conheim said. ''We're not in any way saying it's OK to be unhealthy. We're saying, whatever size you are, you need to accept who you are.''


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