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Mannequins Provide Surprising Art Therapy for Those Recovering from Eating Disorders

I don't have an eating disorder, unless you count an addiction to peanut butter and jelly. But there's probably not a woman in the country who wouldn't find something to relate to in the exhibit -- open until 2 p.m. today only -- called Imagine Me Beyond What You See. The nine photographs depict mannequins decorated by women recovering from eating disorders to reflect their feelings about body image and recovery.

The touring exhibition, the first of what will be an annual competition, is starting its tour in Dallas. It is hosted by the new Dallas chapter (got their nonprofit status just last week) of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals. The actual mannequins are at IAEDP headquarters in Florida.

Located in a nondescript room in a nondescript Irving office building, the artworks are varying levels of lovely but all high in heartfelt. I was drawn to honorable mention winner "Hear Me Please" by Sarah Burchfiel, a dense layered collage of photographs of children and pages from her own journal "from years stolen by my eating disorder," she says in her artistic statement. "I think I'm afraid of being a nobody," says one scrap, pasted front and center. A tape measure is wrapped around the whole package. While the artwork represents something deeply personal to Burchfiel, for me it speaks to the complicated chaos of American women's body image.

The first place winner, "Erosion," by Rebecca Tishman, is a female figure covered with cutlery and painted silver because. "I have heard 'It's not about the food' a countless number of times," the artist's statement reads. Her sculpture, she says, both hides and accentuates the female form.

"Scapegoat Beauty" by Hallie Espel is the most self-explanatory: a mannequin covered with photos of women torn from magazines is chained to a scale. Espel, a 23-year-old woman recovering from a 10-year struggle with an eating disorder, made the mannequin before she knew about the contest. "The art served as an outlet for my frustration at how our culture teaches us that our bodies are the thing that is 'wrong' with us."

And I was a little startled when read about "I Am a Soul With a Body," the first runner up artwork created by Eating Recovery Center residents. According to the statement, when the women first obtained the mannequin, it seemed too thin, so they spent hours building up the woman's six with layers of tissue and glue. Really? That's the mannequin with extra weight? How troubling to think about how skinny it must have been.

Approximately 10 million women and one million men suffer from eating disorders. They're more prevalent than Alzheimer's sufferers, yet in 2008, funding for research was about $7,000,000, as compared to $412,000,000 for Alzheimer's.

Exhibitions like this are one way to try to reach people and spread the word on this life-or-death condition. Too bad it's in town just for four hours.

See Imagine Me Beyond What You See until 2 p.m. at La Hacienda Treatment Center, 1320 Greenway Drive, #135 in Irving.

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Sophia Dembling