Sunday, June 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Love the one you've got: How to make peace with your looks

Special to The Seattle Times

Good Bodies exhibit

Tara Gimmer: Women (only) can view Gimmer's "Good Bodies" exhibit at the West Seattle Family YMCA, 4515 36th Ave. S.W., Seattle, 206-935-6000. Smaller versions of the photos are on display at Tara Gimmer Photography, 1952 First Ave. S., Seattle, 206-625-1017.

The truth about our bodies

Perhaps even Eve worried that her fig leaf made her butt look big, but today, body-image problems are more prevalent than ever:

A wider age range of women is affected. One study found that 57 percent of junior-high and high-school girls had fasted, dieted, used food substitutes (Slim-Fast) or smoked cigarettes to lose weight. Twelve percent had used diet pills, laxatives, diuretics — or vomiting.

(In contrast, almost 5 percent of teenage boys regularly use muscle-building products, from protein powders to human growth hormone and steroids, in a quest to be buff, a recent Harvard study found.)

As many as 10 million American women have anorexia or bulimia.

The average American woman wears a Size 14 and weighs 152 pounds. (That's 52 with a "1" in front of it, Miss Richie. Please eat some cheese.) Supermodels are thinner than 98 percent of American women.

Sources: National Eating Disorders Association, The New York Times

— Sandy Dunham

Let's just admit we are obsessed with celebrities, shall we?

We check People to see whether Nicole Richie has toppled under the weight of her sunglasses. We click through to make sure Lisa Rinna's incredibly inflated lips haven't exploded. We tune to "E! News" to see if Angelina Jolie took one hour or — gasp! — two to reclaim her prebaby-flat belly.

We can't help it, really — everywhere we look we're confronted with thousands of images of impossibly thin, impeccably groomed, fabulously perfect women. Everywhere, that is, except in the mirror.

Rationally, we know those "perfect" women have been air-brushed, Botoxed, made up, stitched up and yanked up to within an ounce of their 50-pound lives. Still, it's too easy to feel somehow inferior. Our problem is not so much that we're imperfect, but that we think imperfection is a problem.

Imagine, though, if we were surrounded by media images of women who inspired instead of intimidated us. Women who look like us — kind of like those curvy girls in the Dove ads, but everywhere.

Sound far-fetched?

Then we know three women you should meet. All three, all with Seattle ties, are pouring their passion and talent into changing the way we see our bodies, countering those pop-culture posers with encouragement, inspiration — and reality.

These are ideal bodies

Tara Gimmer is a Seattle photographer who also teaches water aerobics at the West Seattle Family YMCA.

Gimmer, 44, admits to a few body-image issues herself, but rather than mope around in the slim shadow of some waifish star, she found inspiration splashing right in front of her — and turned it into art.

Gimmer photographed seven of the older women in her class in swimsuits, blew up the photos onto 6-foot-tall banners and hung them in the women's locker room at the Y.

The black-and-white photos exude personality, poise and quiet power. "I don't think we're shown enough pictures of bodies that look like our own," Gimmer says. "I want to be on the crest of the wave that changes perceptions."

And it's working.

People think the photos are beautiful — and her "models" have achieved "semi-celebrity" status, getting stopped and recognized outside the Y.

Gimmer chose these women — ages 63 to 86 — as her role models because they have found peace with their bodies. They made the leap somewhere in their 50s; with age, Gimmer says, "you just start releasing the idea of achieving an ideal body and accept the fact that the body you have is your ideal body."

But it needn't take so long. "Just knowing it can happen can start the process."

Real-life role model

Barbara Brickner was the tallest girl in her Enumclaw school. She was active and athletic but matured early and felt awkward with her rounder body.

In college, though, she entered a singing contest, and a judge who owns a Seattle modeling agency suggested she try "large-size" modeling.

She was offended at first, but when she saw the models' photos in his office, "I was shocked," recalls Brickner, 34. "They looked like me — tall like me, round and beautiful."

Of course, what the modeling industry called "large" (now "plus") is "average" in the real world — 63 percent of us wear a Size 12 or above.

"That's the norm," she says. "I was the norm, but I was always feeling different."

These days, Brickner oozes confidence. She is a singularly gorgeous, successful Size-14 model with a determination to promote a healthful lifestyle and self-acceptance.

Brickner is careful to say she does not support obesity. Neither does she support other unhealthful choices, at either end of the scale.

"Some people have small frames," she says, "but these 5'9" girls who are a Size 2 to 4 are making unnatural, unhealthy decisions every day to be that image. When you're going against the grain of who you are, it's not OK."

While she can't be responsible for the entire modeling industry, Brickner says, she can "talk to young women about reality, so they don't think they have to be that person on the cover."

She did just that at last month's Respect Your Body Week at Seattle Pacific University, and she also speaks to preteen and teen groups — and even the occasional preschool class, thanks to her 4-½-year-old daughter, Rebecca. (Brickner and her family now live in Arizona.)

Brickner says widespread change is likely to come about one body, one mind, one woman at a time. "Each woman has to take it upon herself," she says. "We 'average' women need to make sure our voices are being heard."

So if you like those curvy-girl Dove ads, she says, write and thank the company. You just might find that within every average woman lies extraordinary power.

Normal is beautiful

Julie Church proposed her own job four years ago to Seattle Pacific University — on the condition that it include an annual event promoting healthy bodies and body images.

Guess what happened last month? The fourth annual Respect Your Body Week, led by the 28-year-old registered dietitian.

The goal was to honor all kinds of healthy bodies and ways to get them, so among the lectures and discussions were hip-hop dance sessions, rope-jumping and a rock wall.

College is a vital time to address body-image issues, Church says, because students are coming into a new environment that encourages comparison, performance and, especially among athletes, perfectionism.

In her Student Counseling Center office, Church sees firsthand what can result — from life-threatening anorexia and bulimia to a life-altering loss of confidence.

And all that focus on getting thin with excessive exercise and dieting "gets in the way of energy, gifts and talent that could be put out there," she says.

Church offers alternative ways to think and behave — but not necessarily to lose weight. She tries to scientifically assess what each woman's body should be — and that means a healthy, realistic woman's body, not the body of a 15-year-old. Then she helps her accept it.

With more than 3,000 unrealistically "perfect" media images in our faces every day, Church says, "We're not conditioned to think that normal is OK, acceptable, beautiful."

But now we know better.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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