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Beyond beautiful: "Imagine Me" artworks reflect pain, triumph of eating disorder therapy

May 31, 2012

As I rode the bus to my downtown Cleveland office this morning, reading e-mails and news releases, one contained an image that stopped me cold. 

The image, "She is a Tree of Life," shows the adult figure of a standing woman that blossoms into the outstretched branches of a tree. This artwork, created by Sara Burchfiel, a former client of Shoreline Center for Eating Disorder Treatment in Long Beach, Calif., was awarded both first prize in IAEDP's second annual "Imagine Me Beyond What You See" body image art competition. 

This unique competition, sponsored by the the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals Foundation (IAEDP) encourages eating disorder treatment centers, art therapists, clients, therapy groups, and the general public to reflect on the perception of beauty and then design mannequin-based artworks that challenge audiences to look and see beyond the purely physical. This year, the competition attracted 12 entries which were judged by a panel of eating disorder professionals, art therapists, an American Art Therapy Association representative and professional artist Fritz Liedtke. 

But every bit as compelling as the visual impact of "She is a Tree of Life" and the competition's other artworks are the thought and preparation that went into them, from the selection and preparation of each mannequin to the color and presentation of the finished work. The history of each entry and reflections from each artist or artist group are captured in an engaging, illustrated monograph about the artworks in the 2012 "Imagine Me" competition. 

“My vision for this project was to transform a mannequin into a tree. The natural world has always been a source of grounding and healing for me. At one point during my treatment, my therapist compared trees to women - we look at trees and see only beauty,” says Burchfiel.  “We don't criticize broken branches, seared trunks and brown leaves. We don't compare or call one ugly because it looks different than the next. No, we see their magnificence. So, why do we look at ourselves so differently?” 

Her first step was to obtain a mannequin, which she did with the sponsorship of the Shoreline Center. "I found her 'used and damaged' on Craig's List. I thought to myself, 'All the better - what woman does not carry with her scars of some sort?' I was shocked when I arrived to the warehouse. The mannequin stood at 5'9 and, per the manufacturer; her measurements were 32-25-34. It was clear that weight restoration was the first step towards life. A few of my friends from the Alumni group helped with this process - her new measurements are now approximately 36-31-41."

As her work on the piece continued, Burchfiel explains, "I felt like I was caring for each woman. [The artwork] became symbolic and spoke to the very nature of my project: Our beauty has been muddled and lost in an unattainable quest for 'perfection' (whatever that is), and here I was, washing that away and revealing beauty in the idiosyncrasies. I used actual branches from a tree at Satori (Shoreline's extended care house) to create her limbs. This feels sacred to me as Satori shares in the energy and message of my project and is where I discovered so much healing."
In her quest for continued inspiration, Burchfiel developed a questionnaire and asked a collection of "friends, colleagues, former classmates, and girls I had been through treatment with" to complete it. . . . "The responses were by far the most impacting for me during this process. I was honored that people were willing to respond so honestly to the questions and share with me their inner feelings, insecurities, as well as their stories of reconciliation and acceptance of self. Some responses brought tears to my eyes because of the self-hate and shame. I see these women as gorgeous and soulful - it is 
heartbreaking that they cannot see this themselves. . . .  Some responses made me giggle. Some made me smile at the peace and joy discovered. The wide range of responses spoke loudly to the complexity of our relationship with our bodies. I was fascinated because when asked to define 'beautiful' very few women spoke of physical beauty. They instead talked about character or an inner-felt, often spiritual experience." 

Each of the competition's twelve works merits time and reflection, with each telling an individual or collective story about how those in treatment reflected upon or rediscovered their feelings about authentic beauty. First runner-up honors were awarded to artists representing the Partial Hospitalization group at the  Eating Recovery Center (Denver, Colo.) for its entry, “Mariposa," while Dr. Susan J. Mendelsohn’s Eating Disorder Therapy Groups (Cincinnati, Ohio)  received the Honorable Mention for their entry, “Shattered.” 

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