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Talk aboutĀ appearance

Putting body-image issues on the table forĀ discussion

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos and video by Shane Epping
  • Published: Dec. 17, 2012

Mizzou students Lindsay Murray, Katie Hoy and Joshua Johnson talk openly about body-image issues and eating disorders.

Regardless of gender, college students share similar concerns about their appearance: Do I need to lose weight? Should I get a tan? Are my muscles flabby?

For young adults thinking about starting careers and finding life partners, societal messages about body image and appearance play a leading role in perceptions about their ability to succeed.

So how important is appearance for success in life? With a team of student researchers, two MU professors developed an interactive theater performance to help college-age men and women make sense of the mixed messages on body image.

Student actors of MU’s Interactive Theatre Troupe cover the topic in Nutrition 101, an 8-minute play that encourages audience members to discuss issues about appearance. The response has been healthful talk on topics such as body image, food, nutrition and media messages.

Nutrition 101 is entertaining for sure, but it also is a serious teaching tool about how society values people. The play made its debut this past spring for a class and in a residence hall.

Suzanne Burgoyne, Curators Distinguished Teaching Professor of Theatre, directed development of the play and works with the actors. Maria Len-Ríos, associate professor of strategic communication in the MU School of Journalism, led the research team whose findings informed the script. Graduate assistants Kate Wintz and Joshua Johnson, master's students in the Department of Theatre, contributed to the research, script development, administration and shaping of the final performance.

Sensitive topics

The play centers on a group of students preparing their class assignment for the course Nutrition 101. The students must decide who should make the oral presentation, and Stephanie — whom the audience never meets — is the obvious choice because she’s been primary leader of the project.

But Stephanie isn’t there for the discussion and doesn’t hear her fellow students’ concerns that the group may get a lower grade if she makes the presentation.

It’s up to the audience then to determine what it is about Stephanie’s appearance that’s troubling to the group. Is she fat? Does she dress poorly? The characters discuss how much appearance matters, considering that Stephanie clearly did most of the work.

While the actors wait for Stephanie’s arrival, they remain in character and begin a talk back with audience members, who can ask about statements made in the play.  (There is a surprise moment here that we won’t divulge.)

Interactive theater actors are trained to play different roles, so performances change with different audiences.

“It’s active learning,” Burgoyne says. Her research on interactive theater indicates that people find it a memorable teaching tool because it engages emotion, the senses and intellect.

Focus on food, health

Troupe actor Katherine Hoy, a senior majoring in performance theater as well as nutrition and fitness, knows what constitutes a good diet and how easy it is for the public to have misconceptions about caloric values.

Hoy says the Nutrition 101 characters are believable because they’re built on research from real people in the focus groups.

“I think it’s awesome that the script touches on so many problems of body image while still sounding like a normal conversation between college students,” she says.

In the play, the characters talk about the effects of advertising and how the media’s use of digitally enhanced photos affects the public. Issues of food, weight and nutrition choices come to the table as well.

A male character points out the pressures of being an athlete and having to make weight requirements for wrestling, and vegetarian Lee is as “militant” about being a vegan as he is uninformed about proper nutrition. Another character, who grew up in a poor family, reveals that the family mostly ate processed foods because there wasn’t enough money to buy fresh produce.  

“It’s a great example of how socioeconomics plays into food availability. There are many aspects of food and body health found within the script,” as well as concerns about eating disorders, says Johnson, a member of the troupe.

Burgoyne and theater professor Clyde Ruffin founded MU’s Interactive Theatre Troupe in 2003. The troupe has played a major role in Mizzou activities associated with the prestigious Ford Foundation Difficult Dialogues program and has received a National Science Foundation grant. Topics tackled in Difficult Dialogues have included religion, freedom of speech, intellectual diversity, race, gender, class, sexual orientation and hate speech.


“It seems no one is ever happy with their body, even people with perfect BMI (Body Mass Index) scores,” says Len-Ríos who studies media methods, persuasion and health issues.

The research team's study “Confronting Contradictory Media Messages about Body Image and Nutrition: Implications for Public Health” examined conflicting messages directed at women about how they should eat and how they should look.

“We’re told we’re getting more obese as a society, and we’re told that to be valuable in society, we need to look thinner. From a practical perspective, how do we handle this?” Len-Ríos asks.

In their research, the team learned that body-image issues start very young and body dissatisfaction is common among people in their early teens. A review of literature also indicated that young women are more focused on their looks and weight than on maintaining healthy behaviors.

Len-Ríos and Burgoyne know these issues are of concern to parents and counselors and should be discussed, so their collaborative work became a blend of interests.

The body-image project receives funding from the university's Mizzou Advantage program and the Office of Student Affairs. For their next undertaking, the troupe has teamed up with the MU School of Medicine on a grant project that entails using interactive theater to address communication issues between breast cancer patients and health care professionals. Originally funded by a Susan G. Komen for the Cure grant, the project now is buoyed by a Mizzou Advantage networking grant.

Building a script

To develop Nutrition 101, Len-Ríos, Burgoyne, Johnson, Wintz and a team of five undergraduate student researchers gathered body-image information through conversations with five focus groups and interviews with experts such as nutritionists.

The students learned to do research as they ran five focus groups with multicultural college women; Caucasian college women;  two groups of men; and mothers of college women.   

Across the focus groups, weight was an issue for women, some thinking they were too heavy, others that they weren’t curvy enough, which was an issue in the multicultural group.

Journalism student Alison Gammon says it was exciting to watch her research take shape into a play. “When we talk about our research in academic terms, people can listen, but it doesn’t really stick with them. With the play they stay engaged and relate to the characters and situations.”

Gammon says the script is strong because the characters and situations reflect a society that audiences can relate to.

Doctoral playwriting student Carlia Francis, who writes professionally as cfrancis blackchild, wrote the script for Nutrition 101 after reading the focus group transcripts. She built the characters on stories and experiences the participants related.

If there’s one thing students should take away from this script it’s that nobody can tell one person what the perfect body is.

“The perfect body is the one that you have,” Johnson says.

Hoy agrees. “I hope that this script helps convey to others to be kind, not judge on appearance and to just be happy about oneself. No one should feel bad about who they are because of their appearance. I like to think that everyone is beautiful.”

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Last updated: June 6, 2013