Helping people accept their weight—and the shape of their bodies—is the focus of the Real Women Project, a multimedia venture started by Conheim, 56, and her friends Barbara Levy, 47, a gynecologist, and Donna Brooks, 67, a retired ob-gyn. They get their message across through their Web site (www. realwomenproject.com, which has received 1 million hits since it was launched in 1998) and through workshops around the country featuring poetry, songs and personal storytelling. (In addition, Conheim is training others to hold seminars.)
Most effective has been a striking series of 13 10-in. nude bronze sculptures, now touring the U.S. as part of a traveling exhibition cosponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Created by artist T.J. Dixon, 49, the pieces, currently on display at San Francisco's Exploratorium, are based on real women models of all ages and sizes. Among them: Lily, Levy's 16-year-old daughter, whom she had with heart surgeon husband Gilbert Johnston, 57; Beverly, 53, who had just had a mastectomy; and Tabor, 62, who suffered from endometriosis.
"The sculptures are a vehicle to start the conversation," says Brooks, who uses another set of the statues in their body-image seminars. "We ask which ones repulse them, which ones they want to get close to. Then we ask if they would pose nude."
By the end of the workshop, most participants have found the courage to answer yes to the last question. "When I saw the sculptures and held them, I realized what a work of art our bodies really are," says Trace Shapiro-Hoffine, 29, whom Conheim trained to run seminars in Kansas City, Mo. "The first thing I wanted to do was run outside and tell the first woman I saw how beautiful she was."
The source of that positive energy was first generated three years ago, when Levy, who lives in Seattle, was dining at the La Jolla, Calif., home of partners Brooks and Conheim. They started talking about how some women's embarrassment about their bodies causes them to avoid medical appointments or, if they do go, to shy away from discussing concerns with their doctors. "I see 20 or 30 bodies each day," says Levy. "What women don't realize is we all have folds, sags and wrinkles. They never see me without my clothes on, so they don't see I am that way too."
Levy came up with a visual solution when Dixon, a neighbor, stopped by. That night Levy commissioned seven sculptures, to which six more were later added. The subjects—who were found by Conheim among her friends and colleagues—range in age from 14 to 75 and weigh anywhere from 112 to 350 lbs. "This was a dream project," says Dixon, who has cast eight sets, which were sold for $50,000 each, with proceeds going to the Athena Foundation, a nonprofit private group that gives cash grants to women in need. "It was easy because their personalities came through, and what they wanted to get across came through." Elsie Zala, a professor at National University in San Diego, for instance, was nervous at first. "It takes courage to do it," says the 75-year-old, who posed with her arms outstretched. "I now know that about myself." Beverly, a model, having survived cervical, uterine, lymphatic and breast cancer, had refused reconstructive surgery after her mastectomy. "I was amazed," she wrote on the Web site, "at my own acceptance of that very lumpy, bumpy body...my body, my beauty." It is a healing process for the women behind the project as well. Conheim, who has struggled with body-image problems since her teens, finds that the workshops have helped her see herself more clearly. "I start off saying the three hardest things there are to say: my height, weight and age," she says. "It has de-charged the issue for me."
Julie K.L. Dam
Vicki Sheff-Cahan in La Jolla