Thursday, May 31, 2007

Preventing early dieting and eating disorders

Lean asked me in response to my previous post on distorted body image:

Perhaps you could write a post on what we could do to prevent this fixation in the next generation? Where did we get the idea that scrawny is beautiful/healthy, and how can we train our future daughters to have the right view in this matter?

This is such an excellent question, Lean! Because after all, our primary concern is the young and vulnerable girls that are so susceptible to anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders.

So, how did we get here? How did we get the idea that thinness equals beauty? It's clear that this is some kind of distortion. Throughout history, feminine curves were considered beautiful and flattering. The desire to be healthy and fit is understandable – but what about those walking skeletons we see on the covers of glossy fashion magazines?

As far as I know, there isn't a single opinion about what causes the drive for unnatural thinness and anorexia nervosa. Most of the researchers agree that it doesn't exist in cultures where people are often hungry – after all, who cares about dieting when there isn't always enough food on the table?

I'm not a mother yet, but I think that we have two main targets here:

1. Minimizing the contact with negative influences.
This means all the media – TV programs, fashion magazines, dieting websites – that not only promote distorted beauty ideals, but even worse: try to make them seem like the most important thing in life, like the only thing that will bring us happiness. Try this diet and lose weight quickly, and be beautiful, popular, happy, perfect. Now, I know we can never eliminate all these influences. But we can limit the exposure of young girls to dangerous messages.

2. Showing positive and healthy personal example.
Will the young girls see their mother frustrated because she doesn't fit anymore into the skirt she used to wear in highschool? Will they hear their mother always talk about the latest diet and how much better her life would be if she could only lose that extra weight? And what is this supposed to teach them?

Now, I don't think there's anything wrong with looking good or being fit or dressing nicely. On the contrary! What bothers me is how this is blown out of proportion in our culture. How people's self image depends so strongly on body image. If the way we look determines the person we feel we are, no wonder we are so miserable because of a few wrinkles or extra kilos! If our identity is built mostly on external beauty, we will never have peace. We will always be miserable.

I think the message we should give our daughters (and young girls in general) is this: "Looking good is great, but you certainly don't want to build your whole life around it. And who said that looking good means fitting a certain cultural standard?"


Emily said...

Good post Anna, thanks for writing. Our culture needs to be shaken out of this warped mindset that skinny is somehow beauty perfected.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Anna!


Sheri said...

Anna, what a wonderful post! As a mommy I totally agree with keeping our daughter's "sheltered" from the negative images of "immodesty" and "unhealthy skeletons", you mentioned. It is our job as parents to protect our gifts from God and that means going against what our culture thinks is OK.

I talk to my 4 year old little girl daily about her being made in God's image and that she's "fearfully and wonderfully made."

Lastly, I praise the Lord for giving me a godly mother who NEVER talked about weight, diet, etc. In fact, she has been up and down on the scale, but I've never heard her mention it to me. She always reminds me to focus more on inner beauty than outer beauty.

Again, thanks for tackling this tough issue.

Buffy said...

I think that, sadly, much of the problem comes from other girls who will label a normal size girl 'fat' and make fun of her. Or just pressure each other to lose weight and not eat enough because it's the thing to do. Once children become teenagers their peers seem to be a bigger influence than their parents in many ways.

Anna S said...


There's a point in what you say, but let's ask ourselves - why do those girls label someone 'fat' in the first place? Where did they get the idea that normal size is actually 'fat'? And where did they get the idea that fat is ugly and skinny is beautiful?

Lean Not said...

Thanks for the good post and for responding to my question, Anna.

Also, it was nice to see you on my blog -- thanks for your visit. :)

Anna S said...

It was my pleasure, Lean!

LtRand said... That's a follow up link since you expressed interest in reading it.

As far as dieting and positive eating habits; I do find this subject interesting.

We correctly attack anorexia as a negative impact on women, however, we cannot discuss eating disorders without also mentioning the forced acceptance of obesity either.

In a country of plenty, most men do not want a "starving skeleton", but they do not want a "Jabba the Hut" either. I think the real message should be to stay healthy. Healthy women are curvy and considered attractive. When you look outside of fashion modeling, and look at the entire scope of media, most women that are regarded as attractive are just healthy as far as weight goes. The problem is in a country that, as a rule of thumb, is over-weight, this is interpreted negatively.

To examine media influence on eating habits, we also have to discuss what the norm is as well. The idea that "normal" is fat comes from the fact that generally American's are overwieght, so girls that are actually in healthy weight think of themselves as fat because, generally speaking, teenagers want to be normal. If the norm is fat, then they will, regardless of reality, think that they too are fat. When they see "normal" or "skinny" girls in the media, this hardens the condition in their perceptions without realizing how much the clothing plays a part in how models look.

As far as fat being ugly, this is difficult to study, because until recently, famine had been a rule, not an exception, so obesity did not exist in large populations until modern history. If you look at some cultures, fat people were envied because it was a sign of plenty, a sign of status.

Western cultures though always seemed to attribute feminine beauty with curvy looks, and that state is, for most women, at, or a little above, or a little below, healthy weight, depending on the timeframe. The concurrent trend that shows societies expectations of looks has much to do with what clothes are in fashion and women are expected to wear.

Anonymous said...

Check out this website,
and this blog

She(herself a model) emphasizes upon importance of modesty in a hyper-sexualized world where TV, teen magazines, fashion models, are sending out the wrong messages to young girls (and boys).


12 year old girls are being taught pole dancing (under the excuse of exercise)

Shops sell pole dancing kits to young girls with the message to 'unleash the sex kitten inside' (under the excuse of a toy). The same place also sells strip poker playing cards.

Breast-enhancing padded bras for girls as young as six are being sold in Australia

Already revealing outfits, racy lingerie and make-up are being pushed onto young girls. Cosmetic surgery is becoming more popular. Female masturbation workshops are being organized in colleges.

And on TV, you have the Paris Hiltons, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohans, Pussycat Dolls, hiphop videos...

We need to be liberated from this 'sexual liberation'.

Anna S said...


Thank you for your insight. The question is, what is overweight? Is a person overweight if their BMI is just a bit over 25? What about people who are fat, yet are healthy, active and happy? Should they be pushed towards losing weight?

The ideal, of course, is not skinny or obese, but simply healthy.


:) It's funny that you give me a link to Sheri's blog. I read her posts regularly and also link to her blog. Sheri has fantastic ideas!

Anna S said...

PS: More on the subject coming soon...