By Michelle Tauber
Updated November 27, 2000 12:00 PM

The group of 22 Girl Scouts gaze intently at the image before them: a nude white woman in a pool of water, towering above three nude black women who appear to eye her nervously. “What’s going on here?” asks Miriam Arenberg, gesturing toward Robert Colescott’s 1985 painting At the Bathers Pool. “They think she looks beautiful,” offers Darcy Delph, 13, of Troop 277 in Severna Park, Md.

“The question is, who sets the standards of beauty?” responds Arenberg, a clinical psychologist who is guiding the girls through a tour of the Baltimore Museum of Art. “The painting is telling us that the standards of beauty in this culture have always been set by whites.” The message sinks in. Surveying the three black women again, Delph says, “Their self-esteem is lower.”

Such insights are exactly what Arenberg, 56, and her fellow tour guide, Beth Williams-Plunkett, 45, hope to elicit during the course of “Feast, Famine, and the Female Form,” an hour-long museum program that uses art to teach teenage girls how standards of beauty have changed over time and how different cultures create their own ideals for how women should look.

A clinical psychologist who majored in studio art as an undergrad at the University of Maryland, Williams-Plunkett first launched the program with Arenberg, a longtime museum volunteer, in 1996, with the help of the Seattle-based nonprofit group Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention. The goal, says Williams-Plunkett, who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, is “to help women and girls begin to question this very harmful assumption that they have to be thin to be beautiful.”

The Baltimore Museum of Art, which had been offering the tour twice yearly, is now training volunteers to lead more tours, which are free and open to all visitors. Museums around the country have also inquired about offering similar programs of their own. “It’s the most visual, interactive example that I can think of to engage kids,” says Mary Pabst, president of EDAP’s board of trustees. “It’s very sensory.”

And, especially for teenage girls, very eye-opening. “Girls this age seem so concerned about their weight,” says Lynne Scherbarth, 41, the leader of Troop 481 in Hampstead, Md. Fellow troop leader Beth Coolahan, 43, agrees: “This is the time they see their bodies changing. It’s the perfect opportunity for them to be aware that everyone looks different.”

Artwork such as William Henry Rinehart’s 1872 statue of the Greek nymph Clytie helps illustrate that point. Ringing the 5-ft. marble figure, the girls offer their thoughts on the messages the work conveys. “She’s not stick-skinny,” notes Bethany Scherbarth, 17. “She’s got some curves, her stomach sticks out a little bit,” agrees Arenberg, who lives in Baltimore with her husband, Charles Shafer, 55, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

Another example of differing views of beauty: a wood-and-metal headdress featuring a female figure, made by the Baga people of Guinea, West Africa, circa 1938. “By standards of our culture, we’d say she has sagging breasts, and that’s not very attractive,” notes Arenberg. But “to the Baga, it means she’s nourished children. That’s a sign of status.”

In the case of Edward Degas’s 1919-1921 statue The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Williams-Plunkett stresses that the petite figure is the representation of a girl, not a woman. “Yet this is what we try to make ourselves into,” she says. “Why would an adult woman want to look like a 14-year-old?”

Williams-Plunkett, who lives in Ellicott City, Md., with her husband, Barry, 46, a lawyer, and their sons Barry IV, 3, and Bryce, 11 months, admits that she doesn’t expect to change girls’ attitudes in just one hour. “But,” she adds, “the seed may be planted.”

So far, it seems to be taking root. At a post-tour crafts workshop, many of the girls sculpted female figures—in a wide variety of sizes. Ashley Bentz, 13, of Severn a Park used clay to create a woman that could only be described as portly. The tour “was real informative,” she said. “It opened you up to a whole lot of things you wouldn’t have thought before.”

Michelle Tauber

Robin Reid in Baltimore