Ellen Kuntz had an idea for her high school English project.
Little did she know the nerve it would touch in her fellow students.
Kuntz, 16, a sophomore at Senior High, is a student in Bonnie Banks’ English class. In the fall, Banks had her students read “Night” by Elie Wiesel that detailed the horror of the imprisoned Jewish man’s experiences in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.
Then Banks assigned each of her students to complete a tolerance and awareness campaign project. Kuntz said a lot of her classmates chose to focus on ethnicity or gender.
“I decided to choose body image because I think that’s a prejudice we all have against ourselves and others,” she said.
As part of the project, which she named “I Am Authentic,” she created a 15-second video public service announcement and a 30-second commercial. In one she asked the girls what they loved about their bodies and in the other, what they hated.
“I was shocked,” the teen said. “What they hated about themselves was a huge list. What they loved about themselves — that was a short list.”
Kuntz got a such a positive reaction to her class presentation that she decided to create an I Am Authentic Facebook group. In one day the social networking group gained about 100 members. In two months it shot up to 714 members. The group contains mainly girls, but there are some guys as well.
Kuntz went even further, asking for permission to form a group on campus. She’s gotten approval for that, and is working with students at West High to do the same and hopes to get Skyview High on board.
The idea of I Am Authentic is simple, Kuntz said in an interview at Off the Leaf, the coffee shop where off-campus IAA gatherings are held.
“It’s to learn who you are instead of what you think you should be,” she said, after she finished meeting with the group’s student board of directors.
It’s a busy time for Kuntz, researching how to turn I Am Authentic into a nonprofit, finding sponsors, setting up fundraisers and making plans for future events. But she is passionate about promoting a positive self-image in girls and women ages 10 to 25.
Kuntz acknowledges that it’s an uphill battle in a society where how you look often touches every aspect of your life.
“A lot of it is subliminal,” she said. “On TV shows, the skinnier girl has the lead role. The larger girls play stupid, mean uglier girls that no one likes.”
In stores, glossy magazine covers contain photos of impossibly thin and glamorous models. Girls develop eating disorders to try and fit into the American ideal of beauty, Kuntz said.
I Am Authentic is a place girls can come and share how they’re feeling, learn healthy ways of thinking and know they’re not alone.
“I want girls to know we are a safe place,” Kuntz said. “They can come and talk about their feelings, about body issues and what they’re going through.”
At least for now the group will focus on the issues girls face, although membership is open to guys and girls. Eventually she hopes to broaden the focus to include guys’ concerns.
Workshops the group puts on will focus on everything from depression and anxiety to eating disorders. All of the meetings at Off the Leaf are open to the public.
Senior High meetings, open only to Senior students, will begin April 8 and run every Thursday. Banks will serve as the club’s faculty sponsor.
At the board meeting, publicity officer Sarah Beth Gumm, 18, and a senior at Senior High, said she recently saw a TV documentary about Dana, an 8-year-old girl who battled anorexia.
“It was just so sad, and she didn’t even have the words for what she was going through,” Gumm said. “Second-graders should be playing on swing sets.”
Jasper Heins, 15, a sophomore at Senior and the group’s co-creative director, said he has two sisters and has spent lots of time around girls.
“They always talk about how ugly they are, when it’s not true at all,” he said. “I think it’s awesome for girls and guys both to love themselves and their bodies, not to be fake or to be a clone.”
The idea, Kuntz said, is to find acceptance — and to be authentic.
“We want people to be excited about they are, to love who they are,” she said.
Contact Susan Olp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1281.