A Positive Body Image for All Women: Connie's Story

"I nearly lost my life attempting to transform my body into the cultural ideal of beauty," says Connie Sobczak. "My sister Stephanie did lose her life." An activist and founder of The Body Positive, a nonprofit organization that promotes healthy living and body acceptance, Connie knows from personal experience the consequences of trying to replicate an idealized version of how women are supposed to look. Growing up, both Connie and her sister battled bulimia. For Connie, in addition to dangerously compromising her health, the condition led her to repeatedly drop out of college and even think about suicide. Almost at her breaking point, she reached out for help and started on the path towards recovery.

But her sister Stephanie continued to spiral downwards until her body, overtaxed by her eating disorder and poisoned by the silicone in her leaking breast implants, finally could take no more. She was dead at the age of only thirty-six, and her two young children were without a mother.

In the wake of losing her sister, Connie founded The Body Positive so that other women and girls would not have to risk serious illness or death in order to feel good about their bodies. "The way I see it," Connie says, "body hatred killed my sister." After a decade of work on the project, Connie has come to believe that body acceptance provides a key element in enabling all women to reach their full potential. Education, attention, and care can counter body hatred - a psychological and physical threat that afflicts women of all ages, manifesting itself in everything from eating disorders to self-mutilation.

The Body Positive promotes the Health at Every Size philosophy, which encourages all people to adopt healthy active lifestyles by becoming physically active, consuming nutritious foods, and acquiring healthy eating attitudes and habits. Connie argues that all children need acceptance and seek inclusion in their peer groups. All children can benefit from shame-free and caring relationships to their bodies, and acceptance of their natural sizes. All children can enjoy fun, non-competitive movement every day. And all children can learn to eat a satisfying balanced diet that fulfills their own hunger and satiety signals. Since forming its first youth leadership group in 1998, The Body Positive has directly trained hundreds of youth leaders. Over one thousand schools and communities, including 525 school districts in the state of Illinois, have created their own body image programs, based on The Body Positive's youth leadership model. Distributed worldwide, the project's BodyTalk videos have reached an audience of more than one million children and teens, and Connie has spread the word in numerous TV shows and broadcasts, locally, regionally, and nationally.

Connie Sobczak wants women and girls - including her own daughter, Carmen - to focus on changing the world, not their bodies, and sees body acceptance as the final frontier of women's empowerment. Her advocacy comes directly from the struggle of personal experience and the knowledge that her work is literally saving lives. If The Body Positive came on the scene too late to help her own sister, it is not too late to help other women and girls who are feeling the pressure to conform their appearance to an unrealistic ideal. "The world is changing more slowly than I had hoped," she says, "but Carmen has spent her sixteen years expressing her intelligence and creativity, instead of using her time, brainpower, and energy attempting to mold her body to fit an externally created standard of beauty. Her world is a beautiful place."

This story was written by the committee for the Volvo for Life Awards in 2008, when Connie was selected as a semi-finalist.

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