Ours is a culture of conflicting messages. The typical women's magazine cover promises a diet plan that can't fail... and pictures a dessert that will never be part of it. Or it portrays a model whose body type is possessed by five percent of the population, or has been altered by computer or scalpel. Experts say this adds up to a picture-perfect set-up for eating disorders.
Few are more vulnerable than those who have the least life experience. A Harvard Eating Disorders Center study found that 31 percent of 10-year-old girls say they fear being fat, and 52 percent of 14-year-old girls feel better about themselves if they're dieting. Other types of signals from society only contribute to the shrinking of female America.
When girls begin to "disappear"
Catherine Steiner-Adair, director of education at the Harvard Eating Disorders Center, researches cultural trends that discourage girls from expressing themselves freely or behaving assertively. She has noticed a connection between these trends and girls' efforts to control eating and body size.
Steiner-Adair says girls do a good job of expressing themselves until they reach pre-adolescence, when they encounter what she calls the "tyranny of 'kind and nice.' Society sends them a clear message that in order to be listened to, they have to posture themselves correctly," she says. "They begin to mimic older women by suppressing anger, hiding their feelings and feigning happiness."
As her voice begins to disappear, a girl may try to "shrink" in other ways, Steiner-Adair says. "A 9 year old will tell you 'I think,' but by 11 or 12, a girl is more likely to begin her sentence with 'I don't know,'" she explains. When they don't feel acceptance for expressing themselves, girls often seek shelter in some form of control. The most common focus is their bodies and eating.
Factors that set girls up
Media analyst Jean Kilbourne first alerted Americans to the power of media messages in her video, "Killing Us Softly," which showed media's negative effect on women's and girls' self-image and self-esteem. Her more recent documentary, "Slim Hopes," examines the body images that help the dieting industry flourish, keep women frustrated, and put young girls at risk.
"The body type most commonly pictured-tall, slender, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped-is one that belongs genetically to a very small percent of the total population," Kilbourne says. "But it's the only one we ever see. Or worse, with computer-engineered images, we see 'models' composed from up to seven different images, 'bodies' that aren't physically possible without plastic surgery."
In pursuit of such impossible standards, increasing numbers of girls view dieting as a necessity and experience eating disorders that are destroying the health of their still-developing bodies, says Kilbourne. The issue is further complicated by a media tendency to sell food as a somewhat sexualized "moral" issue, either an ultimate satisfaction or a temptation to be resisted, she explains. The result is that young, impressionable minds get the message that someone is "good" for not eating, or for rigidly controlling her eating patterns.
How can adults help young people avoid these traps?
Kilbourne and Steiner-Adair recommend a strategy of informed intervention and conscious role-modeling to help girls bypass potential eating disorders:
- Acquaint girls with facts that offset advertising hype. Point out how mixed messages and false images target them specifically. Encourage even young children to ask questions and seek facts.
- Capitalize on the importance of the mother-daughter relationship. This is where girls learn most life skills. Unfortunately, "what many learn is to eat compulsively, to shop, and to obsess about weight," says Steiner-Adair.
- Create opportunities for girls to express themselves authentically and feel accepted for doing so. One mother began by sharing a workplace problem with her pre-teen. The daughter's ideas led to a unique solution, and communication that benefits them both.
- Foster self-confidence by offering girls support and guidance about how to handle difficult situations. Coach them on how to speak up when it's scary to share something, or how to be angry with someone and still preserve a relationship.
- Monitor what you do and say. "Are we talking about body size and dieting all the time?" Kilbourne asks. "Do we perpetuate the idea that diet products can somehow save us, rather than modeling self-acceptance, balanced eating and moderate exercise as options?"
- Remember that the younger a child, the more literally she interprets what she hears. "When an 8 year old hears her mother, who thinks she's 10 pounds too heavy, say she's 'fat', what does this tell her about her own developmental pudginess?" Steiner-Adair says.
- Encourage pursuits that diversify girls' experience and fortify their emotional strengths. Psychologist Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (Putnam, 1994), recommends involving them in activities that develop their talents and interests, especially physical ones like sports, which reinforce both inner and outer strengths.
- Expand and bolster girls' self-concept by increasing their interaction with age groups other than their own-from elders to toddlers-through friendships and volunteer work, Pipher also advises.
We'll all benefit
Becoming more sensitive to the messages girls receive and taking steps to contradict the negative ones calls for a shift in our own thinking, Kilbourne and Steiner-Adair agree. Eighty percent of women who were asked what they wish for most said "to be thin" or "to lose weight". Girls aren't the only ones affected by unrealistic cultural norms.