We know teenagers respond to media pressure, but what can you do about it? One theatre workshop is tackling health and identity issues head on, as Beth Harrison observes
Your image doesn't make you who you are ." "Weight isn't the key to happiness ." "I felt happier, not so self-conscious."
This is the feedback of three teenagers after experiencing Mirror Mirror, a theatre-in-education production and workshop that informs pupils about issues concerning identity, health and relationships within the PSHE curriculum. Pure Creative Arts, a Liverpool-based theatre company, developed the presentation as a response to the media pressure on teenagers to aspire to an unnaturally thin body image.
About 1.5 million people in the UK suffer from eating disorders, and anorexia and bulimia have the highest fatality rate among psychiatric illnesses.
Through drama, film clips, music and movement, Mirror Mirror tells the story of Kate - how she developed anorexia in her teens and her route to recovery. "The follow-up workshops enable pupils to explore their own feelings about body image," says Tamsin Evans, director of Pure. "We look at how media and peer pressure operates, and ways to build self-image and relationships constructively." The production was originally designed for teenage girls, but Pure now also offers a co-ed version.
During the performance, a shadow screen provides dramatic interplay between the actions of the central character and her thoughts. A key downturn for Kate follows her decision to have sex with her boyfriend. She thinks it will boost her confidence, but she feels exposed and devalued, leading to an overpowering desire to change. "I didn't wake up one morning thinking, `I won't eat any more'," she says. Meal by meal, the habit of not eating sets in, resulting in hospitalisation.
The mood is intense, but this mirrors a teenage girl's painful focus on appearance as a summation of self-worth when the balance in her life is awry. By the end, it's clear that Kate has taken control of her own destiny after accepting help.
Following the performance, the cast stays on stage to "hot-seat". They remain in character while the audience asks questions exploring thinking and motives, clarifying choices and considering how friends can help. One pupil asks: "If your mother was anorexic, what would you say to help her?" It is easier than asking directly.
After the hot-seating, a team member who suffered bulimia tells her story, of the pressures that made her ill and her Christian faith, which helped her get better.
The pupils then split into workshops. In one, the class flicks through fashion magazines, and talks about how the models make them feel. The team explains make-up and graphic techniques that "perfect" or distort models.
A lifestyle workshop focuses on the practicalities of healthy eating and exercise, and how these activities build positive self-image. And in the mirror workshop, everyone is handed a mirror and invited to describe what they see. Many responses are derogatory. They're then given mirrors with a positive label - unique, beautiful, special - and asked to look at themselves again. This moves several to tears.
It's sensitive stuff, but it seems to strike home. "I've been impressed at how pupils warm to their workshop leader and open up," says Andrew Pickford, a language teacher at the Belvedere Academy in Liverpool. "Pure's performances communicate clearly and relevantly to young people in a way that teachers are often not able to."
Beth Harrison is a writer and former teacher of drama and English.