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Judy Foreman: Mer James, Chantal Peterson Put Bodies and Soul into Changing Stereotypes

Duo bringing Miss Representation documentary to Santa Barbara to spur frank discussion about women, girls

Chantal Peterson, left, and Mer James are bringing the acclaimed documentary Miss Representation to Santa Barbara for a community discussion about media stereotypes of women and girls. “The film has helped inspire individuals and communities to challenge and overcome limiting stereotypes so that everyone ... develops a new perspective to open up this vital discussion,” James says. Click to view larger
Chantal Peterson, left, and Mer James are bringing the acclaimed documentary Miss Representation to Santa Barbara for a community discussion about media stereotypes of women and girls. “The film has helped inspire individuals and communities to challenge and overcome limiting stereotypes so that everyone ... develops a new perspective to open up this vital discussion,” James says. (Peterson family photo)

Open any fashion magazine or watch any movie, TV show or red-carpet event, and it’s hard not to miss the women shaping our cultural norms.

As a woman, mother of two daughters and now a grandmother, the acclaimed documentary Miss Representation really got my attention.

The film — written, directed and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom — challenges the collective message the media sends to our young women and men that a woman’s value is only in her youth, beauty and sexuality.

On May 1, community activists Chantal Peterson and Mer James will be hosting a free screening and a post-screening panel discussion of Miss Representation at The Narrative Loft near Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.

First screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, the documentary exposes how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America. Some four years later, it is more relevant than ever.

The collaboration between James and Peterson began in late 2014 when they both discovered a shared passion for helping women restore and cultivate a healthy body image.

The friendship began when James, a marriage and family therapist, offered to provide mentorship to Peterson, who was actively seeking the support, through weekly meetings in her downtown office.

Seeing that ideas and inspiration poured out whenever they got together, the pair determined that their relationship was meant to be one of creative collaboration and service. Thus, the BodyLove Project was born.

Both women shared with each other their personal history of having suffered with negative body images.

Having overcome eating disorders in her mid-20s, James was inspired to undertake a career in psychology to help other women suffering from similar afflictions.

She has been a psychotherapist for almost 30 years, focusing her private practice primarily on helping women of all ages address issues related to eating disorders, body image and good health. As a social activist, she’s committed to enriching, educating and empowering others to challenge the way the mainstream media undervalue and incorrectly portray women.

The Santa Barbara mom is a much sought-after public speaker at high schools, colleges and nonprofit events, and she serves as a consultant to school personnel and members of the medical community.

Peterson, meanwhile, spent 10 years of her childhood as a serious ballet dancer. Because of the bias against full-figured dancers, she struggled with her own body image from a very young age — the effects of which persisted into her mid-20s.

Today, she blogs at The Grand Orange about the power of Body Love, self-acceptance and the rise of size diversity in fashion and media.

She, too, is an active community organizer, public speaker and writer. But she’s also a “curve model” and sales associate at Drishti, a woman’s clothing store that features yoga and workout apparel and supplies.

Later this year, Peterson is launching her BodyLove lifestyle brand, which is dedicated to empowering women to love and respect their bodies though products, online services and live workshops.

She is particularly passionate about lingerie and swimwear since it’s so hard to find great-fitting pieces that look good.

“It is not hard to make bigger women look amazing,” she explained. “But traditionally there have been so few brands that provide great options.”

The idea to bring the indie documentary, Miss Representation, to Santa Barbara was born after James introduced the film to Peterson during one of their mentorship sessions.

James and the documentarian, Siebel Newsom, are friends. The latter founded what would become The Representation Project in 2011, in response to overwhelming public demand for ongoing education and social action in support of the film’s message.

James and Peterson believed the documentary — a true story with an important, politically relevant message — was a powerful way to begin a dialogue on issues that they are passionate about.

Miss Representation includes stories from teenage girls, as well as provocative interviews with politicians, journalists, entertainers, activists and academics like Lisa Ling, Nancy Pelosi, Condoleezza Rice, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Rosario Dawson, Jackson Katz, Jean Kilbourne and Gloria Steinem.

“I wanted to shed a light on this problem, because if we don’t question that thinking or work to change it, we are going to be marginalized,” Siebel Newsom has said.

The documentary “offers facts and statistics used as a catalyst for cultural transformation.”

“The film has helped inspire individuals and communities to challenge and overcome limiting stereotypes so that everyone, regardless of gender, race, class, age or sexual orientation or circumstances, develops a new perspective to open up this vital discussion,” James told Noozhawk.

The dynamic partnership between Peterson and James is fueled by the mutual desire to see women and girls achieve their highest potential — a belief that positive body image is the bedrock for unleashing creative energy!

The film and post-screening panel discussion led by James and Peterson of the BodyLove Project are free and open to the public.

The screening is scheduled for 7 p.m. May 1 at The Narrative Loft, 1 N. Calle Cesar Chavez, Suite 240. To RSVP, email Peterson at [email protected] or call 928.380.3088.

— Noozhawk columnist Judy Foreman is a longtime local writer and lifestyles observer. She can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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