Body Image Obsession Doesn't Happen In a Vacuum

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen February 12, 2002
Original Title: The body perfect

The decision by YM magazine to quit printing diet tips and use models who reflect the body image of the majority of teens is welcome news.

Weight and body image is a central issue for adolescents especially between the ages of 13 to 16, more so in adolescent girls. Boys, although concerned about how much muscle mass they may have or how tall they will be, are less inclined to diet and develop eating disorders. They can develop eating disorders but the majority affected are girls.

The girls’ obsession with weight and body image does not occur in a vacuum. Some comments are innocent enough but in a global context it is one more reminder of what they should be rather than acceptance of who they are. Pressure from parents, coaches, teachers, friends and society impart an unrealistic image of the perfect body. It becomes the Holy Grail for many girls who perceive this state as nirvana; they will be popular, attractive and in control of their lives.

Nine years of classroom visits to Canterbury High School aptly show how pervasive the desire to diet is ingrained into the minds of our children. In a Grade 9 class we were asked the following anonymously written questions (verbatim):

“I’m in the ballet program and, my teacher keeps telling me to stick in my stomach. I hold it in as long as I can, but, it still won’t hold in enough for her, it hurts. My ballet teacher from the original dance school I come from told me to do sit-ups, it doesn’t help and to make matters worse I binge all day — no breakfast, almost no lunch then dinner and an occasional snack. My mom won’t let me go back to my dietician. What should I do? I don’t want to be fat.”

Another girl writes, “I try to diet but I can’t seem to lose the weight I want to. I get hungry and I have to eat. What should I do? P.S. my friends say I don’t need to lose any weight.”

“When I eat a lot of food it always goes into my legs and they are fat at the top. How do I get rid of it?

Normal adolescent growth and development becomes suspect and abnormal in the eyes of those in positions of power and filters down to the vulnerable.

Dieting can be harmful to adolescents because their bodies, which continue to grow and develop, can develop nutrient deficiencies. By age 20 there are some girls, having restricted their calcium intake (by not drinking milk or consuming calcium rich foods) that have bone densities equivalent to a 50-year-old menopausal woman. Some have erratic irregular periods, others none at all because of low body weight. Many have iron deficiency anemias.

“For about a year or more I have not been able to eat because I am not hungry. The only meal I eat is supper and a few snacks. I get stomach pains a lot and they get so bad I can’t walk. I have lost a lot of weight and I don’t know what is a matter (sic). And the only other time I eat is when I am smoking dope.”

“A while ago I would occasionally force myself to throw up after eating a lot, does this mean I was bulimic?”

Adolescents are aware that they or their friends may have a problem. They ask pertinent questions and sincerely seek a healthful life.

The message to convey the proper path to health and wellness gets lost among the myriad of competing interests. Some suffer from depression or other physical ailments that can influence or exacerbate eating disorders.

They are adrift with few resources to help them steer a proper course: “My best friend used to be anorexic and bulimic and now uses a whole bunch of drugs, her parents know, but they refuse to take action, all of her friends are the same way. What do I do?”

Childhood obesity is epidemic in our society. Twenty to 25 per cent of all children are overweight or obese. Our culture is food-obsessed and food-phobic.

This dichotomy is borne out on TV, radio and print media. There are television commercials for fast-food restaurants, processed high-fat frozen foods and sugared breakfast cereals among others followed by low-fat frozen dinners and ads for weight loss plans and miracle diet infomercials. Small wonder our children are confused.

As parents we have the ultimate responsibility to ensure the health and safety of our children. We should commend and support YM magazine’s effort to change its focus to normalcy. We should not buy products of those who prey upon the insecurities our children, for indeed that is exactly what is happening. We cannot expect our children to know better if the message for health is inconsistent.

It is madness for a ten-year old, yet alone a fifteen year-old, to suffer physical and emotional pain because of weight concerns.

Let them live.

© Dr. Barry Dworkin 2002

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