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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In Honor of Eating Disorder Awareness Week

When you look in the mirror, what do you see?  Your perception of how your body looks forms your body image. Interestingly, a perfectly-toned 20 year old fitness model could have a very poor body image, while an average-shaped 50 year old man or woman could have a great body image.  Regardless of how closely your actual figure resembles your perception, your body image can affect your self-esteem, your eating and exercise behaviors, and your relationships with others.

Do happiness and popularity really come from a diet sheet or a gym? In our media-driven culture our views of what our bodies should look like are warped.  Magazine editors, for instance, know that to make a sale, they need only to play on our doubts or create new ones, making us think we have “problems” that don’t really exist.  Every part of the body is picked apart and scrutinized. As stated by Dr. Joel Yager, “Every society has a way of torturing its women, whether by binding their feet or by sticking them into whalebone corsets.  What contemporary American culture has come up with is designer jeans.”

Society has an unhealthy obsession with images of beauty, good looks and notions of perfectionism as popular media, including television, movies and magazines have consistently portrayed an increasingly thinner and physically fit body image as the ideal for both men and women.  The constant flow of images that stem from a certain ideology have a profound effect and there can be little doubt that modern society's obsession with appearance can be traced to an onslaught of images portraying an ideal physicality that is not only unrealistic for the majority of people, but also unhealthy.

According to Kilbourne, Twenty-five years ago, the average fashion model was 8% thinner than the average woman. Today, that number has risen to 23%, likely reflecting a combination of rising obesity rates in the general population and progressively thinner ideals.  The average Playgirl centerfold man has shed about 12 lbs. of fat, while putting on approximately 27 lb. of muscle.  It appears that all of a sudden the ‘normal’ size is portrayed as overweight.   Even health and fitness magazines are not above scrutiny. Articles stress the importance of moderate diet and exercise, but pages are filled with advertisements for appetite suppressants and diet supplements. The diet industry is a multibillion dollar business, as women are consistently given the message that they are not pretty or thin enough.

For instance, if one was to turn on any television show, flip through any magazine, or go to any movie and come across someone who doesn't fit into the narrow mold of what is considered good looking; chances are that person is presented as either the "bad guy" or, more probably, the "nerd”.

A recent study on media's impact on adolescent body dissatisfaction found that teens who watched TV shows that emphasized the ideal body typed reported higher sense of body dissatisfaction.  A study of 4,294 network television commercials revealed that 1 out of every 3.8 commercials send some sort of “attractiveness message,” telling viewers what is or is not attractive.  These researchers estimate that the average adolescent sees over 5,260 “attractiveness messages” per year.

Girls are influenced at a very young age when exposed to Barbie—the ideal woman with no body fat, but huge breasts. But, if Barbie were life-size, she would stand 5’9” and weigh 110 lb. (only 76% of what is considered a healthy weight for her height).  Her measurements would be 39-18-33, and she would not menstruate due to inadequate levels of fat on her body.

Similarly, boys are given the impression that men naturally have muscles bulging all over their bodies.  Take a look at their plastic action-figures, such as GI Joe Extreme in toy stores.  If GI Joe were life-size, he would have a 55-inch chest and a 27-inch bicep.  In other words, his bicep would be almost as big as his waist and
bigger than most competitive body builders’.

The government needs to allocate funds to produce exciting, media-driven advertising campaigns to provide information to kids and families about good nutrition, exercise, and healthy self-esteem. Messages need to be visible at school, on TV, and online. Media is a formidable opponent precisely because advertising firms have the financial resources to produce clever advertisements that convince consumers to buy their products.  It is true that capitalism creates a need that isn’t naturally occurring.  Advertising executives are paid hefty salaries to try to find a way into the consumer’s psyche. Magazine editors need to find ways to incorporate images of average-sized adults and teenagers into their publications. In addition, they need to find ways to resist publishing advertisements featuring emaciated models.

The resulting statistics are daunting.  81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat and 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner.  A 2007 report by the American Psychological Association found that a culture-wide sexualization of girls and women was contributing to increased female anxiety associated with body image.  Though media messages may not directly cause eating disorders, they help to create the context within people learn to place a value on the size and shape of their body.

In the United States, as many as 10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Millions more are struggling with binge eating disorder, yet most fail to receive adequate healthcare and treatment.

There are no easy solutions.  Parents and health care providers alike must talk with children about media messages and healthy life styles.  Many of us take our bodies for granted.  We must celebrate the body and the miraculous things it can do when at a healthy and happy weight.  Perhaps you and your friends can agree to help each other overcome media pressure by not encouraging each other’s diet and food fads, advocating certain body shapes or endorsing right and wrong body shapes. Reduce the talk of losing weight and changing shape. Try not to wonder what your ideal body shape is and think more about things that make you feel healthy and comfortable in your own skin.  Look at different shapes and sizes in a new light for what they are – that there are many different types of beautiful.  Focus on what you love about yourself and each other—I can guarantee thoughts about body image will subside and other characteristics will surface and be admired, such as personality traits and personal achievements.  I mean, look at Oprah Winfrey.  She is well-respected (and not to mention a millionaire) and admired by billions worldwide, but isn’t idolized for being thin and in shape.

A revolution must occur in order for long-term change and it all starts with our own perception and what we portray.  Millions of men and women alike are literally killing themselves to be thin as they try to conform to an idealized body image as portrayed by messages from the media. We must realize there is no such thing as one “ideal body weight”.  Every individual has a healthy weight based on our body type, bone structure, muscle mass, genetics what weight we FEEL our best at, and what weight our body tends to want to maintain at. There is a physiological limit to how muscular we can get, naturally.  And we must remember that weight isn’t the best indicator of health or fitness. Eating habits, exercise patterns and other lifestyle choices are more important.  And we must not forget, weight does not define who you are or what you are worth as a person

We're only given one body. Isn't it about time we learn to take care of it? Perhaps it is only then that we can learn to love it. 

"Do you want to meet the love of your life? Look in the mirror." --Byron Katie


  1. Thank you for sharing this rebecca. I had no idea about some of these stats and it was a shocker. I feel saddened but I am glad that there are great women like you who are making our society aware of this.

  2. The way our society projects beauty is so sad. No wonder so many of us develop eating disorders and start questioning our appearances...we're comparing ourselves to completely fabricated photos! I also think it is hard to see so much emphasis placed on appearance. We should value eachother for who we are, not what we look like. Thanks for writing such a powerful piece!

  3. I found "the body myth" to be a really helpful book in my recovery. I would recommend it to anyone looking to question what we've learned throughout our lives as young women.

  4. Can't thank you enough for sharing this xoxo