Dieting girls, then and now

In January 1986, a group of fourth-graders were asked a simple question by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal: are you on a diet? And more than three-quarters said yes. Many of them had no medical reason to lose weight, but still thought they weighed too much and were taking steps to lose weight.

I was in kindergarten at the time, and four years later, when I was in fourth grade, I, too, thought I was too big and weighed too much. Was I dieting? No. Was I distressed? Yes.

Almost 25 years later, the original WSJ reporter followed up with some of these women to ask them about how pressures about weight have changed since they were young. Their answer was simple- the pressures have only gotten worse.

In 1986, weight loss efforts for suburban Chicago girls consisted mainly of Diet Coke and Jane Fonda exercise videos. Today, these now-grown women note, girls can look online at pro-anorexia forums, at any number of magazines, and numerous videos on YouTube. There are sites with diet advice, online calorie counters, and online diets. It's all their and all in your face, even in pre-teens.

I'm guessing that girls who look at pro-ana sites and are "attracted" to them are probably more likely to be vulnerable to EDs in the first place. Although, truth be told, many girls visit them for weight loss tips, or with the desire to "become anorexic." I was always enthralled by stories of eating disorders when I was younger, long before I ever started exercising and "eating healthy." But EDs existed long before the advent of supermodels and Photoshop and bulletin boards, and so these pressures serve as triggers, as one more thing that moves the Tipping Point of a full blown eating disorder ever closer to people.

Researcher Kerry Cave noted that

"A preoccupation with body image is now showing up in children as young as age five, and it can be exacerbated by our culture's increased awareness of obesity, which leaves many non-overweight kids stressed about their bodies. This dieting by children can stunt growth and brain development."

And these preoccupations can ultimately lead to eating disorders. None of the women in the study, it should be said, developed an eating disorder, although most suffered from body image woes throughout their lives. And maybe that's the really sad part: how many lives have been blunted by these preoccupation of ours, even if it never reaches the point of formal diagnosis.

Link to the original 1986 article: Fourth Grade Girls These Days Ponder Weighty Matters

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Julie Parker said...

Really great post. So scary to think that such young girls are thinking about such big things.

Eating Alone said...

Not just girls. Males too are feeling the pressure to be "ripped" or have lot's of definition or be rain thin at the waist and have a huge chest. And magazines for guy's are catching up to the ones for ladies, self image wise. The diet industry needs more money so a new demographic.

chartreuse said...

"...which leaves many non-overweight kids stressed about their bodies."

And if the kids are overweight (or even--gasp--fat!) then it's okay for them to be stressed about their bodies? It's tragic to me that the individuals who think it's sad for average-weight girls to be distressed about their bodies also tend to think it's totally appropriate for fat girls to be distressed in the same way.

It is NEVER right for a child to be distressed about the size or shape of their body.

Sarah said...

As the mother of a 2.5yr old, I can't begin to tell you how much this terrifies me.

How does a mother even begin to counteract the ill effects of a billion dollar industry? When she struggles against it herself too?

Any Mouse said...

Along with the increase in societal pressures (social media, hyper-awareness of "healthy eating," etc.) I often wonder whether the rise in "tweenage" eating disorders can be attributed (at least in part) to the earlier onset of puberty.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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