Dove Campaign Brings Discussion of Self Esteem, Body Image to French Schools

Written for a San Francisco audience in 2006 as part of Europe in the World student journalism project.
Michele Lacoste-Dupont is a Parisian psychoanalyst who has worked her whole career on the self esteem of the obese and very skinny alike as a specialist in eating disorders. Both she says are missing a form of mental, not physical, nutrition elsewhere in their life and are suffering from a mental disease with physical ramifications.
“Both the very fat and very thin with eating disorders suffer from issues of self esteem,” Lacoste-Dupont said.
Until now Lacoste-Dupont has sought to help people with eating disorders in her day job but in late May Lacoste-Dupont joined the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, signing a 4,000 contract with their Self Esteem Fund to help strengthen the body image of French girls.
If you looked up at billboards off Market Street or followed the ads on the side of Muni buses last spring you may have seen the diverse group of six not-so-average average women.
The models, all in white swimsuits, were part of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, a series of advertisements by the beauty product company to champion natural beauty.The same advertising campaign, together with a Self Esteem Fund like the one Lacoste-Dupont is involved in, took place in countries all over the world where Dove is active including Canada, Australia, the Philippines and France with models from the corresponding country.
As part of the campaign Dove conducted a study in 10 developed nations worldwide and found three quarters of women comfortable with calling themselves average or natural and only two percent felt good calling themselves beautiful.
In this category only the British and Japanese responded in lower numbers than the French.
French women especially feel external pressures to stay thin. More than American women and other surveyed countries of Europe barring Portugal, French women of today feel they are expected to be more physically attractive than their mother’s generation.
When asked if physically attractive women are more valued by men the French agreed more than any other country in the survey. As part of her work Lacoste-Dupont will “travel to French schools to talk with young girls about low self esteem and eating disorders,” two things Lacoste-Dupont believes could be on the rise.
The climb of obesity rates could influence the self esteem and body image of French young people who are, according to national statistics, gaining weight at a speed that has doubled in the past 10 years from nine to 18 percent. She is, as many experts are, hesitant to say if rising obesity rates will affect the amount of people who suffer from eating disorders but it will make people more conscious of their body image and intensify pressures to be thin.
“Self esteem issues are always there in eating disorders,” said Lacoste-Dupont “because most people who have eating disorders don’t like their image.”
Another reason for concern is a growing diet market. According to the publication Datamonitor, France has the fastest growing diet product market in Western Europe. The reason why someone develops an eating disorder, she says, is different from person to person but they start the same way.
“Eating disorders always begin with someone trying a diet,” she says, comparing the addiction of eating disorders to that of an alcoholic.
“Someone who drinks wine is not an alcoholic but they start with a glass of wine,” she says.
She knows the effects of low self esteem well not just because of her work as a psychoanalyst but from personal experience. When Lacoste-Dupont was 15 she felt a distance between herself and her mother.
“I always felt very alone and though I wasn’t sure, I thought my mom liked my two brothers more than me. So perhaps to be more important for my mother I lost a lot of weight,” Lacoste-Dupont says.
How much weight she isn’t sure of but she would not stop trying to lose weight for another 15 years. Lacoste-Dupont was anorexic and deprived herself of food to achieve the image of what she found beautiful. She studied psychology for her bachelors degree in hopes that it would help her find answers to her own problem but had no luck. Then she chose to become a psychoanalyst for the same reason.
In 1983 she told her story in the fashion magazine Elle and the women of France responded.
“I was sent 50 letters a day, 5,000 in all,” says Lacoste-Dupont.
Inspired by the response and still anorexic, Lacoste-Dupont and a colleague Professor Aimez at Sorbonne University began the European Group for the Anorexic, Bulimic and their Families (GEFAB) to help people with eating disorders. It was the first organization of its kind in France to bring attention to the subject of eating disorders at a time when there was very little available treatment or discussion, she says, of her affliction in the psychological field. For a number of reasons, perhaps remarrying or other changes in her life, she was able to stop.
More than a decade later she is still visibly underweight but considers herself lucky that she has no long lasting health effects as eating disorders can often do.GEFAB and its 20 volunteers will visit schools and do presentations for young girls.
“We will show them the altered pictures that you see on magazines and billboards,” said Lacoste-Dupont.Photos taken for magazines can be significantly altered, she says, to create unrealistic and sometimes impossible results. Some photos are assembled from three different women to create the perfect image while others are thoroughly airbrushed and touched up with computers.

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