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Artists speak on eating disorders exhibit

Published: Monday, February 11, 2002

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

In conjunction with the campaign organized by the Eating Awareness Team of Boston College, the communications department invited artists Robin Lasser and Kathryn Sylva to address BC students last Tuesday. The lecture given in Fulton 511 addressed the public art campaign, "Eating Disorders in a Disordered Culture," created by Lasser and Sylva, currently on exhibit at the McMullen Museum until April 28.

Ann Marie Barry, a professor in the communications department and a member of BC's Eating Awareness Team, began the team's work three years ago in response to growing concerns on campus. Barry noted the status of eating disorders as a national epidemic headed on a global warpath, presently affecting one in four students in the BC community.

"Not only are the visuals of their campaign succinct, provocative and perfectly illustrative of its theme, but the campaign speaks directly to its audience in its own language," said Barry in her introduction. "More, Lasser and Sylva have woven into their campaign the heart and soul of what it is like to live with an eating disorder."

As university professors, Lasser and Sylva began their campaign as a research project required of their profession. The work initially took shape when her students verbalized the concern for eating disorders conveyed through their own projects, said Sylva.

In artistic form, Lasser and Sylva aimed for a "cleanliness of image" to make their audience feel comfortable looking at it. With their guard down, viewers are moved by the emotional intensity of the text. The striking accounts have been garnered through research, both historical and current, ranging from Catherine of Siena who starved herself to death in 1380 to present-day biographies of men and women. Lasser and Sylva made a point of noting that 10 to 15 percent of persons with eating disorders are male.

The campaign takes its form in three main venues: gallery exhibition, public art and a Web site. Through a gallery presentation, the artists aimed to provide adequate privacy while allowing the viewer to feel surrounded by the people afflicted with eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating.

The exhibitions are composed of several striking prints and sculptures including plates etched with individual stories of eating disorders and a dinner table entitled, "Secret Appetites." This work incorporates empty place settings with audio media of victims' stories as told by friends, family and the victims themselves.

As public art, the unique images have taken the form of bus shelter posters, bus exteriors and billboards. The billboards first appeared on Interstate 80 near San Francisco and became so widely renown that they caught the attention of California legislator Helen Thomson. One billboard displayed ground beef letters spelling out, "Fear of fat eats us alive," on flaming grills with the caption, "Some women don't just diet. They die."

The strong message portrayed in this advertisement influenced Thomson to include anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa in her Mental Health Parity Bill, which was signed into California law in October 1999. This bill ended discrimination in insurance benefits for those who suffer from severe mental illnesses, including anorexia and bulimia.

The Web site created by Lasser and Sylva, www.eating.ucdavis.edu, is the third venue by which they extended their campaign. The Web site is a particularly attractive means of communicating eating awareness to those who are perhaps too ashamed to do so in public. Also, the site is not limited by time or location as is the gallery exhibition, and it provides visuals of all Lasser and Sylva's work. An interesting feature in this venue is the "Speaking Out/Stories Told" section that includes stories written by men and women afflicted with eating disorders, as well as those of friends and family. Users can write their individual encounters with eating disorders to be included on the Web site, furthering the impact against the evils engendered by eating disorders.

The public ad campaign started by Lasser and Sylva drew the attention of film producer Laura Sauriat and director Simon Kerr, who documented the "Eating Disorders in a Disordered Culture" campaign for "Swallow," their exposé on eating disorders. Clips from this film reveal the dramatic reactions people have in response to Lasser and Sylva's work. In one scene, a college counselor is moved to tears in gratitude for the contributions made by the campaign to disclose the truth about the eating disorders that have and continue to affect a number of her students.

Lasser made a point of acknowledging the presence of "so many young communicators" in the audience. She urged them to use this campaign as a guide that they may one day provide "an alternative voice to the market industry that depends on the low self-esteem it inflicts on consumers for its own success."

Robin Lasser teaches and coordinates the Photography Program at San Jose State University, CA. Kathryn Sylva teaches design at the University of California at Davis.

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