Part 3: Heather Henderson's story

Appearance isn't everything

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 2/14/01.

Heather Henderson Heather Henderson knew all the facts about eating disorders. She knew how cultural messages valuing looks and thinness fed lies to girls and boys, especially girls.

She knew, for instance, that the average fashion model weighs 23 pounds less than the average woman. She knew that magazines, even though they started with an uncommonly beautiful and thin model, still used airbrushing to get the perfect look.

She knew that the image created, and sold to girls and women, was unattainable. And she tried to spread the word about what she knew.

But the message delivered by our culture can be overpowering, and even as Heather tried to inform others, she fell victim to that very idea. While others might have seen Heather as thin, skinny, even underweight, she saw something else.

Little boys at the mall might point to her twig-like legs and gawk because they were so thin and bony, but Heather would look in the mirror and see her legs as tree trunks.

Heather, who grew up in Paynesville and is pictured above in her high school graduation picture from 1991, suffered from anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa for 11 years, believing she was fat, even when her underweight physical condition stood in stark contrast. Related damage to her heart killed her last September.

"One of her goals was to change things, to help other people so they wouldn't fall into the same trap she did," said her father, Bill.

The trap was the cultural message that emphasis physical appearances and equates thinness with beauty. "It's ironic that someone who's outwardly so strong and talented would get sucked in by that," continued Bill.

Blaming the culture
After watching their middle daughter battle her eating disorder for 11 years, asking "what if" can tempt Bill and Kris Henderson, but they feel it would just be a waste of their energy.

They're too busy trying to continue Heather's crusade against the prevailing culture and for better treatment of eating disorders.

What frustrates Bill and Kris - and what they hope to change by sharing the details of Heather's struggle and death - is the limited availability of eating disorder treatment and the cultural messages that convinced Heather she needed to be thinner. The only blame Bill and Kris place is on the culture.

"Unrealistic expectations," Kris calls the way women are portrayed in American culture on television, in magazines, and by the media.

The average American woman is only 5'4" tall and weighs 140 while the average model is 5'11" and weighs only 117 pounds, according to a study cited by Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, Inc. (EDAP). This emphasis on thin being beautiful leads half of American women and a quarter of American men to be on a diet at any given time, EDAP further asserts.

While some dieting is justified (obesity is also a problem in America), for millions of girls and women - and for a million boys and men - diets turn into eating disorders.

"Parents can be the world's greatest role models," Heather once wrote, "and still find themselves unable to comfort a daughter after a peer's cruel remark. After all, everything a parent has to say can be drowned out by an hour of living in our media-saturated culture, whose ads and commercials repeatedly tell girls that appearance is everything and skinny is best."

An indictment at a funeral
"Her death is an indictment of what we let our culture get away with doing to girls and women," said Joe Kelly at Heather's funeral in October. Kelly was Heather's boss at Dads and Daughters, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to providing fathers with resources to build strong relationships with their daughters and to challenge these cultural messages.

Heather was talented, intelligent, and loving, Kelly continued, "but the insidious, corrosive cultural messages that value females more for how they look than for who they are told her that her accomplishments didn't matter near as much as attaining some unattainable look."

"When I indict the culture," Kelly added, "I indict myself and all of us because we are the culture, and ironically that's where I see the redemption in Heather's life because she shaped our culture into one with greater justice. She really did, in very concrete ways."

"She showed us that the statistics of eating disorders are more than statistics," Kelly said. "They're someone's daughter, someone's sister, and someone's friend. And she also showed us that we don't have to be statistics of passive silence in the face of injustice."

Fighting for gender justice
Heather spent her professional life writing and fighting for gender justice, and she battled it on a personal level, too.

As coach of a high school gymnastics team while attending the University of Minnesota-Morris, Heather was "full of hugs and kind words," said her head coach, Ann Michels. "Heather was absolutely the very first person to tell every girl just how beautiful they were," Michels continued.

After college, Heather started her journalism career in suburban chains, which led to magazine work, first as the editor of Lavender in the Twin Cities. Then she worked for New Moon Publishing in Duluth, where she was employed by Nancy Gruver, Kelly's wife.

New Moon: The Magazine for Girls is an award-winning magazine intended for girls between eight and 14. It is meant to be an alternative to the teen and fashion magazines that bombard girls with the thin is beautiful message. Other magazines, said Gruver, "are full of messages about how (girls) need to look different, act different, and be different."

New Moon: The Magazine for Girls is edited by girls and does not accept advertising. The advertising message used to sell products to girls has a false premise, said Gruver. "The message they use is, 'There's something wrong with you and this product can fix you,' " she explained.

Heather worked as circulation director for New Moon, trying to expand the magazine's readership using networking, web contacts, and word of mouth. Gruver said Heather was passionate about her work and everything else she did.

New Moon later acquired HUES, which was a magazine with a similar message aimed at older teens and young women. Heather became its editor, a position she would hold until the magazine ceased publication for financial reasons.

Heather wanted to challenge the status quo, and Gruver believed this desire led Heather to accept a job at New Moon and later with Dads and Daughters. "She loved writing and she loved all kinds of creative things," Gruver said. "She chose to work in media, I think, because she wanted to get a message out. She wanted to reach people."

Dads and Daughters
"Inner beauty only goes so far. Just one of the dangerous marketing lies bombarding our daughters," reads a statement on the front page of the Dads and Daughters (DADs) website (www.dadsanddaughters. org), which Heather built from scratch.

"Dads and Daughters fights back," it continues.

After HUES folded, Kelly said he held his breath when he asked Heather to join DADS, which was just starting. Kelly knew about Heather's organizational, researching, and writing skills, and about her dedication and passion for work.

Heather created and maintained the 600-page website for DADs, helped produce a newsletter, kept e-mail contacts across the country, and found information on a variety of topics DADs stressed, including: becoming media critics, career goals, financial literacy, body image, and sexuality.

"She was researching all of these, a huge range of issues," explained Kelly. "She also ran the office. She wore a lot of hats."

Heather also served on an advisory board to a theatrical company that was going to produce a skit on the prevention of eating disorders.

"I don't think I've ever met anyone with so much energy and life in her," said Kelly.

Kelly has taken DADs message to the pages of The New York Times and People and to the airwaves. Last year, the organization grew to over 2,000 members, and used that membership to change one particularly offensive commercial.

Kelly saw a Campbell's Soup ad that had prepubescent girls on a diet, when they were too young to be counting calories. The threat of mobilizing DADs' membership was enough to get Campbell's to pull the ad. For these achievements and their overall work, DADs was named one of the top ten newsmakers of 2000 by The Minnesota Women's Press.

Join the battle
While changing the culture and the media messages is a daunting task, the victories that DADs has already achieved show that change is possible.

Bill and Kris hope that their daughter's death can be used to raise awareness of eating disorders, and of the cultural messages that support them. "All people must learn to value others for themselves and not how they look," explained Kris. "Look at the person and not their bodies."

Be careful about size comparisons, too, Kris warned. Heather happened to be the largest of her siblings and cousins, and comments about her relative size caused her to feel like an elephant, Kris said.

"If every third time a friend discusses her diet you change the subject, you'll be making a difference," wrote a co-worker of Heather in a Star Tribune op-ed piece. "If every other time an acquaintance comments on your child's size you cut him off, you'll be promoting change. If every one of us could regularly tell the people we love - especially the young women we love - that they are beautiful, regardless of size, we'd be committing a revolutionary act."

Kelly continues DADs' work without Heather, its energetic and die-hard supporter. "When one voice, like hers, is raised, it speaks for thousands of others," he said. "And if our voices are raised we will speak for thousands more and we'll bring what (Heather) fought for to fruition."

Dads and Daughters' website is New Moon's website is

(Next week, the Press will examine current attitudes about body image in our high school.)

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