Like a typical 10-year-old girl, Anna Jones can't wait to be a teenager.
She loves sports and playing with her friends, but she dreams of the day she can drive her own car, and she tries not to worry too much about how she will look cruising down the street. She has high self-esteem, partly thanks to her mentor, Charlotte King.
"I think when kids are 10," Charlotte says, "many of them worry too much about how they look and if the other kids will like them or make fun of them."
In the United States, more than 9 million kids are overweight, but on the flip side, more than 8 million young women are battling eating disorders. Mandy Golman, a fitness professor at Southern Methodist University, attributes that in part to the bombardment of skinny models on television and in fashion magazines but adds it is an unhealthy image.
"Girls should be told to love the bodies they are blessed with and to take care of them," Golman says, "but reality TV is telling them 'if you don't like your body, just change it."
Helping girls establish good eating habits is essential, according to Girls In Motion founding sponsor Rick McCall. His 20-year-old daughter, Elisa, died in 1996 from an eating disorder. She grew up at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas — the same church that King attends — next to the Southern Methodist University campus.
Girls In Motion is a mentoring program that counsels girls before they hit their teens. It is offered through the Elisa Project, founded in 1999 by Rick and Leslie McCall as a way of providing girls and their loved ones with education and support. The McCalls also established the Elisa Ruth McCall Memorial Endowment at SMU in memory of their daughter.
Participants are often recruited for Girls In Motion through their schools and church youth programs. Rick McCall believes his daughter started her path to bulimia before she hit her teens.
"I would much rather deal with preventive maintenance," he says. "If parents would teach their children not only to avoid playing with snakes and to never smoke cigarettes but add 'to eat healthy and take care of your body,' my daughter will not have died in vain."
Golman says girls' self-images and bad eating habits are established well before she sees them on the college campus. King, a senior at SMU, remembers all too well her early teens.
"I definitely struggled with over-exercising and not eating enough. I was worried about my looks, and I wanted to fit in with the other girls," she recalls.
It is the driving force for her joining Girls In Motion. For the last year, she has met with Anna every week. They walk around the campus together and talk about issues of low self-esteem, proper exercise and healthy eating habits.
"We learn to stay 'in motion' and stay fit," Anna says, "and Charlotte tells me not to worry about what the other girls are doing or anything but to just be myself because everyone is different."
Along with their weekly walks, the pair attend nutritional classes, shop and cook together.
On a grocery trip, King helps Anna learn the five-fruits-and-vegetables-a-day rule, but she also teaches her about more than produce.
"It's OK to have ice cream in moderation; it's a great source of calcium," King tells Anna.
"That's great, because I love ice cream," Anna replies.
The ordeal of living with an eating disorder is described in moving detail in excerpts from Elisa McCall's journal. She tells about her binging, her struggles with weight and self-esteem, and her sense that God is fighting beside her.
Throughout her battle, she tries to keep a positive spirit, writing in one of her last entries: "I'm doing good at discarding my negative thoughts & trying to be my best friend instead of fight w/ myself."
Elisa's last wish was to help other young women avoid developing eating disorders. Girls In Motion is her living legacy, and using college student mentors seems to be a perfect fit.
"We feel like using these great young college women is our best ammunition to combat all the media messages young girls receive," Golman says. "It's easy for their mothers to say, 'Honey your body is beautiful,' but to hear it from a college girl who is young and hip adds a new dimension."
*Hampshire is a freelance producer in Frisco, Texas.
News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or [email protected].
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