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Division III — Slim to None: Raising Awareness About Eating Disorders through Theater
Katie Spero grew up in "apple country," as she puts it, in New York state, but it wasn't Hampshire's famed orchards that drew her to the college four years before. "It was the hands-on, inquiry-based learning," she says. "You can study whatever you want; you have control over what you do."
Spero arrived at Hampshire with an intellectual interest in psychology. She later learned that two people she knew well were struggling with eating disorders, which sparked an interest in that particular area "Watching them go through this, and thinking I couldn't do anything to help them, was hard for me. So I decided to investigate eating disorders from an interdisciplinary standpoint, specifically through Hampshire's Culture, Brain, and Development program."
Spero's quest was to discover the cause of eating disorders, and to try and determine a way in which they could be effectively treated. "I looked at them through gender, through neuropsychology, cognitive science, and social science. I did that through classroom work and through reading on my own."
She concluded that eating disorders are "incredibly complicated," and that there is no single cause. Researchers, she adds, are currently investigating whether there might be a genetic component in the development of them. One thing she is sure of: "They're about coping with stress, and gaining control over your life."
Spero identifies four types of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and non-specified (those that don't quite meet the diagnostic criteria of the first three).
Rather than present the results of her studies in the form of a report, Spero, who is intensely interested in art as a teaching tool, turned them into a one-act play for middle-school-aged young people. The play, Slim to None, was performed at Hampshire in February 2007. Spero oversaw the production and made it her Division III (final year) project. She hopes it will educate young people about the nature of eating disorders—and help prevent them from developing such disorders themselves.
Another Hampshire student, Valerie Ewing (05), directed the play, and produced and edited a video. Plans are for the video, along with a curriculum guide prepared by Spero, to be made available to teachers and school administrators who might wish to show the play to their students.
Serious as its subject is, Slim to None has comic elements. "I used humor deliberately," Spero says. Eating disorders constitute a growing problem among adolescents, and a frightening one, and she felt a lighter touch would permit students to be entertained and engaged as they were being instructed. Inanimate objects become actors in the play; the protagonist's clothing and stuffed bear conduct dialogues with her.
"The audience response was wonderful," said Jane W Couperus, assistant professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience and chair of Spero's Division III faculty committee. "Both the college students and the young adolescents in the audience seemed to really be engaged by the play. They not only learned from the material presented, many commented that they were going to change something about themselves or talk to others if they had concerns about their eating habits."
This fall Spero will head to Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to pursue a master's degree in elementary education and creative arts in learning. "I want to teach elementary school, and continue to write plays about issues," she says. Her ambitions go further: she plans to apply for grant money to start her own organization to educate through the theater.