Lauren Gehl did not merely win an essay contest that garnered a $1,500 scholarship from the Elm Grove Junior Guild.
Gehl, who recently graduated from Brookfield Central and is on her way to entering the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, struck a blow for young women who are confronted by societal expectations of the perfect human form.
Gehl tackled the subject in a 500-word tome that outlined media and other elements of society's negative role in generating feelings that can lead to eating disorders. She also offered some glimmers of hope.
"This is the underlying problem," Gehl wrote. "Everywhere we go and much of what we see and hear screams 'you aren't good enough.' Most especially for young women, this is true for body image."
She cites magazines such as Shape and Glamour as well as stores like Victoria Secret for displaying ultrathin, heavy makeup-wearing and scantily-clad young women.
On the positive side, Gehl pointed to The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty and more recently Vogue magazine for stepping forward and using more realistic body images in their advertising and articles.
Gehl was motivated by public expectations she witnessed and by a friend who has suffered from eating disorders.
"Everywhere you go, people are encouraged to be really thin and it's not healthy," Gehl said. "It's really all about inner beauty.
"When I saw the essay contest and that the subject matter could be about issues facing women," she said, "I knew what I wanted to write about."
Gehl's essay came to the Elm Grove Junior Guild in a blind judging.
"We had a lot of very good essays," said Allie Gerschke Kinney, one of the judges. "We were impressed. Lauren's essay was very well researched and thought out with a lot of good points."
Those points also are on the minds of local professionals who deal with the same and similar issues.
"Our culture really emphasizes being thin and a lot of people get caught up in that," said Colleen Lantzy, a family therapist with Brookfield-based Systemic Perspectives. "That's a big reason why people have self-image issues. I don't see that changing."
Jill Rinzel, assistant professor of psychology at UW-Waukesha, said while conventional forms of communication have always portrayed an ideal body, technology has made it worse.
"With the Internet and Facebook and other forms of instant communication, you now have these same communications and, added to that, people responding to them," Rinzel said. "People are very critical of others and they express that freely in those forums."
Rinzel also said she sees positive opinions like those of Gehl.
"It is good for young people to be aware of the influence," Rinzel said. "It may be difficult to do anything about it, but it helps to be able to interpret what those images are about and what they are trying to do. It helps to not take those images too seriously."
Gehl is serious about her ambition to help others. She plans to major in nursing and minor in Spanish.
"I have wanted to go into health care ever since I went on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic," Gehl said. "I know people who have wealth beyond belief and they may have no idea what others are struggling with.
"People are always gong to be sick and I want to go into pediatrics. I think it will be a good thing to do."
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