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Eighteen seventh-grade girls sit cross-legged on a striped carpet in a classroom at the Young Women's Leadership School in Queens, New York. They're eager to absorb the wisdom of Jessica Weiner, self-esteem expert for The Tyra Banks Show and author of Life Doesn't Begin 5 Pounds from Now. Her latest role: global ambassador for the Dove Self-Esteem Fund. In partnership with Step-Up Women's Network, a national nonprofit advocacy, education, and mentoring coalition, the fund is conducting confidence-building workshops in schools across the United States, Canada, and Europe.
"When you see people on TV and in magazines," Weiner says, "you might ask yourself, 'Why don't I look like that? Is there something wrong with me?' But you're beautiful, perfect, just the way you are." As if on cue, the six-foot glamazon Aisha Tyler, actress, comedienne, and author of Swerve: Reckless Observations of a Postmodern Girl, struts to center stage. "All the criticism and scrutiny you face to be perfect, I face it too," Tyler says. "I have to deal with the same pressures that you do because of the business I'm in. I've been called fat before." (Tyler's, oh, about a size 6.) The girls gasp at her confession. And in that instant, they all become best friends. For the next two hours, they share insecurities about their bodies. But they leave with revelations on how to renounce self-hate for good.
When Tyler reveals her own before-and-after shots from a magazine photo shoot, the alterations are more than obvious. "I'm curvy, and I'm proud of that," Tyler says. "But they thought I was too fat, so they made me look more like a boy" -- by photoshopping away nearly all the hips she's currently accentuating in fitted jeans.
Inspired? Consider this: "Once you gain more insight about how images are manipulated -- even with people like Aisha, whom we'd deem beautiful -- it reinforces the notion that what you see in these retouched photos is not what you're supposed to be," Weiner says.
"Competing with other girls just makes you think that you have to be the prettiest or skinniest," Weiner says. The media plays on that dynamic, pitting girls against one another for a bachelor's affection (a la Bret Michaels on Rock of Love) or for a coveted crown ("There she is, Miss America").
Inspired? Consider this: Shift away from "you versus them" thinking, Weiner suggests. "Working with other women, instead of against them, lets you see others as allies and realize that there isn't one clear winner or one healthy body type. That'll help you stop comparing yourself to them."
"Every day, we see people we know whom we admire and find beautiful," Tyler says. "So why look up to models or celebrities? You have your friend's sister or your mom -- they should be your role models."
Inspired? Consider this: "Create an 'esteem team' of real people who inspire you to be a better version of yourself," Weiner advises. You'll set much more reasonable goals if you have tangible, realistic examples.
Words pack just as much weight as actions, Weiner notes. "You can hold on to something someone says to you for 20 years. Be conscious of what you say to yourself -- and others -- because when you change your language, you change your life."
Inspired? Consider this: Focus on your assets. In one exercise, the girls write postcards to themselves, naming the traits they love. "It's practice in talking positively to yourself," Weiner explains. "It reminds you of what you most appreciate about who you are."
"You have to act your way into feeling better about your life," Weiner says. "Do something that scares you. I ran the Hawaiian marathon in this body," she says, pointing to her curves. "Weight shouldn't stand in the way of doing great things."
Inspired? Consider this: When you're having one of those "I feel fat" days, use Tyler's technique: "Visualize those thoughts as sailboats floating past you. In another moment, something positive will come sailing along."
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, July 2008.