They came to the halls of truth and beauty at the Baltimore Museum of Art to explore one of society's most persistent debates: What defines feminine beauty? What should define it? Over the weekend, about 30 women and men toof women's bodies. The program was part of a national week of activities to call attention to the seriousness and prevalence of eating disorders.
The most suspenseful moment came when the group gathered to compare a statue of a robust adult nude with a statue of a waif-like adolescent ballerina.
Tour leader Miriam Arenberg, a Baltimore psychologist and museum docent, introduced the nude torso: A headless bronze figure sculpted in 1910 by French artist Aristide Maillol.
"How would you describe this kind of figure?" she asked the group.
"She's round and full. She has a richness. I almost think of her as a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked," said Dr. Arenberg.
"Also, if you look at her stance, she looks like someone who is proud of her body. She's comfortable with it. She's showing it off a little bit.
"Now, what part of her anatomy would you say is biggest?"
"The lower," observed a woman.
"She has a rounded belly and a rounded behind," Dr. Arenberg pointed out. "There's even a little fat line, but it doesn't seem to intimidate her."
Next, the group studied the young ballerina by Edgar Degas: A reed-like bronze figure with an inward, dreamy gaze.
"What kind of body does the dancer have?"
"A child's body."
"This girl was, in fact, 14 when Degas started working on this statue of her," Dr. Arenberg said. "This is a pre-pubes-cent adolescent girl's body. It's not developed. And yet think about it: In our culture today, if we asked women to choose which body they would prefer, which image do you think would get the most votes?"
"Which statue do you think has its own power and its own right? Could stand up for itself more?" asked the other tour leader, psychologist Beth Williams.
Dr. Williams, who treats patients with eating disorders at Sheppard Pratt Hospital, stepped closer to the strong but unfashionable torso.
"What would happen to this woman if she took today's standards to heart? What would happen to her posture? Her beauty would die. Not because her body would change, but because she would hold it differently. The inner beauty would emanate differently."
Tour members nodded.
Middle school view
"That statue would actually be ugly to girls in middle school," pointed out Elizabeth Grauer, assistant principal of Holabird Middle School in Dundalk.
"To most grown women, too, unfortunately," said another woman.
"Only maybe one percent of women can naturally look something like that Degas dancer when they get to be mature," says Dr. Arenberg. "Women's bodies are not really designed to look like that."
"Research shows that men tend to like a more full-bodied form," Dr. Williams says. "It is the women who are imposing this more on themselves -- although the men are starting to catch up."
Titled "Feast, Famine and the Female Form," the tour confronted the issue of only-thin-is-beautiful by examining how various artists have used a woman's body shape to define not only seductiveness, but also fertility, motherhood, intellect, power and powerlessness.
Some participants brought personal knowledge of eating disorders to the discussion. Others voiced concern about the children or students they feared might, sooner or later, try to starve themselves into beauty.
"At school, we'll see girls who won't eat," said Ms. Grauer. "The administrators on lunch duty walk around and say 'Susie, Jane, aren't you hungry?' These are extremely thin children, understand. And these girls will sit there and say 'No!' "
Physicians and psychologists who treat eating disorders say that such a relentless desire for thinness comes from a complex combination of psychological, interpersonal and social conditions.
As many as 10 percent of post-pubertal girls and women either suffer from an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, or from a "borderline" condition, according to Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, a national nonprofit organization.
Although eating disorders primarily affect women aged 12 to 35, research shows an increasing number of 9- and 10-year-old girls are beginning to "diet."
Physicians are also treating more men than ever before.
"Our daughters, our sisters, our friends are increasingly under pressure [to be thin] in a way that impairs the quality of their lives," Dr. Williams told the tour members. "A huge number of people get physical problems from eating disorders, but 100 percent are impaired psychologically and socially.
"Each of us -- in how we think about and how we talk about what's beautiful in women -- contribute to the problem. None of us is an innocent bystander."
At the beginning of the tour, Dr. Williams showed a collage of photos of female models taken from recent fashion magazines. She explained how many of the most popular images are manipulated by photo editors to achieve a standard of freshness and slimness which not even the models possess.
The widespread belief that the female body is beautiful only if it is sexually desirable -- currently defined as magazine-thin -- can exacerbate eating disorders, she said.
People with anorexia nervosa can restrict their eating to the point of starvation; sufferers of bulimia go through desperate cycles of severely restricting their eating, then bingeing because they are so hungry.
Filled with guilt and shame about overeating, they attempt to rid their bodies of the extra calories by vomiting, using laxatives or exercising excessively.
"Pursuing that image of thinness may actually cause somebody to overeat for all kinds of biological and psychological reasons," she explained. "What happens to people who sit around hating their bodies is that they often withdraw from the world, are depressed and may binge eat."
Dr. Williams said the eating disorders which are most common -- and often most difficult to treat -- are subclinical or borderline conditions which affect perhaps a quarter of the women aged 12 to 35.
"We're talking about women who walk around thinking about 'Am I thin or am I fat?' Who judge their day or their self-esteem by getting on the scale and seeing if it's the right number. Who are maybe being irritable with their spouse or their child -- or not able to concentrate on their work -- because they're thinking 'Did eat right?' 'What am I going to eat?' 'I'm hungry, how am I going to control it?' We're talking about women who are walking around depressed because they hate their bodies. Who are not being able to have a good sexual relationship because they feel so self-conscious."
One way to acquire a healthy attitude, she said, is to question cultural images, to learn how body shapes can be used positively and negatively.
"Images speak to us. And artists manipulate an image to give a message."
She pointed out cultural images of thin as undesirable: The nasty boniness of the Wicked Witch of the West, the miserable gauntness of women in Dorothea Lange's Depression-era photographs on display at the museum.
"Lange's pictures show what conditions mankind has struggled with all along. The actual flesh and curves of the woman's body not only make the miracle of reproduction possible, but also make women and babies in utero and nursing able to survive for the millions of years throughout famines and depressions," Dr. Williams said. "Throughout time, being heavier has been considered more beautiful."
She also discussed the beauty of female strength as represented by the 1938 sculpture "Tower of Mothers" by Kathe Kollwitz. The zinc sculpture depicts women who have used their bodies to form a fence around their children.
"Those bodies are literally protecting those children," Dr. Arenberg noted. "Maybe most of the men have gone to the battlefield and that's where the guns and bullets are. And what these women have left is truly themselves. Just in the way they have themselves to nurture their children with breast milk, now they only have their bodies left to protect these children."
"Here the body is being beautiful for what it can do," Dr. Williams said.
At the end of the tour, the discussion returned to the subject of desire. The group gathered in front of "Ingres's Bath," a 1993 oil painting by Grace Hartigan which considers the long artistic tradition of temptresses in luxuriant poses.
"Look at the female forms in this picture," Dr. Arenberg said. "How do they look? How do they carry themselves?"
"What about them makes them seductive, do you think?"
"Confidence," said one man.
"Very curved lines," said another.
"A relaxed quality," said a woman.
Dr. Arenberg stepped back to admire the painted ladies, women who impart the feeling of Persian cats with half-open eyes, purring.
"Again, these women are objects of desire. And they are painted the way men would want them to look," she said. "But they're not thin."
Taking positive steps
Eating Disorders Awareness & Prevention, a national organization based in Seattle, lists these suggestions to help prevent eating disorders.
*Do not promote the erroneous belief that thinness and weight loss are great while body fat, being overweight and weight gain are either horrible or indicate immorality and sickness.
*Avoid categorizing foods as "good/safe" vs. "bad/dangerous."
*Be aware of the self-consciousness, shame and anxiety you create when you comment openly on a child's or a spouse's body shape and weight.
*Examine your dreams and goals for your children and other loved ones. Avoid conveying an attitude that says, "I will like you better if ... you lose weight, don't eat so much, look more like the slender models in the ads or fit into slimmer clothes."
*Discuss with your children the dangers of trying to alter body shape through dieting. Dieting is associated with binge eating, irritability, depression, fatigue, excessive self-consciousness and, paradoxically, long-term weight gain.
*Help children appreciate the ways in which television, magazines and other media distort the true diversity of human body types, implying that a slender body means power, excitement and sexuality.
*Avoid rewarding or punishing children with food.
*Encourage children to be active, to enjoy what their bodies can do as well as how they feel.
*Set an example for your children by eating a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods, by exercising for pleasure and health, and by accepting your shape and weight.