July/August 2011 Issue
Raising Healthy Families in a Weight-Obsessed Culture
Therapists can’t stop the unhealthy media messages about “perfect bodies,” but they can encourage parents to prepare children with accurate information about body weight, exercise, genetics, and the myth of perfection.
Studies have confirmed the powerful influence our consumer culture has on imprinting behavioral norms. Family dynamics, biology, technology, and our media culture contribute to shaping attitudes toward weight and body image. How do we help parents, caregivers, and other leaders navigate the factors influencing our youth culture, especially concerning weight-related and body image issues?
What We Know
• Eating disorders, including body image issues, are complex and involve myriad interrelated contributing factors.
• There is no such thing as physical perfection and therefore it can never be attained.
• Popular media and marketing will never let you believe physical perfection is unattainable.
• Friends and family are often the worst sounding board for negative thoughts about body image.
• Countless girls and women of various shapes and sizes have engaged in the fruitless pursuit of physical perfection.
• The pursuit of physical perfection often begins in adolescence and persists throughout the entire lifetime.
Perfection in our culture is often viewed as a woman being taller or shorter, curvier or thinner, softer or more toned, and lighter or darker than she is. However, these targets are often a reflection of the negative feelings we foster about our own appearance and are not defined by some measurable goal.
Dissatisfaction with physical appearance is a growing trend among both men and women and is steadily affecting younger and younger people. Bedford and Johnson (2006) compared body image concerns in younger and older women, and their study revealed no age-related differences in body dissatisfaction. Similar findings were reported by Reel (2000), who discovered that although no significant differences existed among women of various ages, women who were 40 to 59 years old reported the highest body dissatisfaction.
It’s Not Just About Dieting
Numerous research studies have confirmed that body dissatisfaction is closely linked to self-esteem in adolescents, more so than in adults. Thus, if a teen is struggling with body dissatisfaction, it may interfere in the development of that person’s self-concept and sense of identity. Regardless of our level of sensitivity to our own imperfections, vulnerability to criticism increases during the developmental years as puberty leads to rapid physical and emotional changes. Children are often confused by the social constructs of the narrow standard of beauty projected. Teen girls often make statements such as “Those images are living inside of me; how am I supposed to be feminine without being overly sexual?” or “How do I see my strengths apart from my looks?”
Internalizing the Fantasy Ideal
The physical archetype to which a person aspires can be formed at a very young age and evolve over time. Youths are exposed to unattainable models of physical beauty through a variety of media, including television shows and magazines. They often fail to recognize that this one-dimensional version of perfection can be achieved only with hours of make-up, perfectly tailored clothing, generous lighting, and carefully selected camera angles to conceal imperfections. In the most blatant cases, print media are often airbrushed or otherwise edited to not only remove imperfections but to create the illusion of unachievable proportions and beauty. By comparison, people constantly fall short of nearly every target set before them.
Though it is easy to blame the media for setting these unrealistic standards, society may do little to discourage it. People acknowledge the desirable traits of famous individuals, complain about their own physical condition, and loudly protest the punishment induced by specific foods. Again, for most, these comments are no more than simple statements intended to give voice to likes and dislikes. However, for others, these comments can serve to establish goals and guidelines for a lifetime of negative body image and self-doubt.
Studies indicate a growing trend of preteen girls believing they must restrict their food intake to become thinner because they just can’t measure up. This internalized critic may be carried throughout life.
As an example, a study by Brown and Slaughter (2011) examined body attractiveness and normality in females aged 4 to 26 and found that all age groups rated photos of women who were significantly thinner as more attractive than women they viewed in normal weight ranges. Many women continue echoing that they would be more attractive to people of both sexes if they were to lose a significant amount of weight.
More interestingly, studies have shown the sociocultural influence on distortions of body type preferences among opposite sexes, and they strongly influence the ability to exaggerate expectations of perfection and project them onto others. That is, people internally establish an ideal body shape and convince themselves that if they could achieve that shape, the opposite sex would find thinner women more attractive and that peers would be striving to be even thinner still (Cohn & Adler, 1992).
What is truth is relative to our inner perceptions and unique experiences and influenced by technology and mainstream media.
Our experiences with others in relationship to self and body awareness helps lay a foundation for how we see ourselves. As an example, children who are teased by their peers for body shape or size are more likely to develop a poor sense of body image and may suffer from symptoms of depression. The saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” just doesn’t ring true. Peers can have a tremendous influence on children’s beliefs and ideals.
Who’s in Charge?
A recent study of the correlation between parents’ weight-related ideals found that their overt and covert restriction of their children’s food intake was significantly associated with child body dissatisfaction (Schuman, 2010). This research, along with other recent studies, concludes that education is necessary for both parents and health professionals concerning the influence of both direct and indirect parent weight-related attitudes and behaviors on a child’s body satisfaction.
A Proactive Approach to Help Families
The following is a list of 10 ways to help families foster resilience and positive body awareness and regard:
1. Inner Dialogue
Working with parents on how to listen, process, and engage with their children is important. Families can pay attention to how children speaks to themselves during play—you can learn a lot about how they are processing emotions and resolving conflict. Help families utilize purposeful play techniques to introduce respect and regard for diversity of body sizes and people in general. It is never too early. This is the best time to engage this developmental phase to build bridges of healthy cognitive functioning, including healthy body awareness and image.
Some parents need resources and guidance on how to interact with their children about this sensitive topic. Provide them with a variety of ways to interact with their children, such as going online or to the library with them to find positive, fun educational sites to help their children understand their bodies better. Sites such as www.kidshealth.com provide creative ways to talk about questions related to body, growth, and self-esteem. Parents can also teach children resiliency tips and how to respond to peers who may focus on unhealthy ideals.
3. Sports and Games
It is important to challenge the family but also to work within its resources and capabilities. Help introduce doable activities that include the whole family’s preferences.
5. Critical Thinking Skills
6. The Whole Picture
7. Genes vs. Jeans
8. Family Adventure
9. Tool Kits
10. Red Flags
• anxiety that does not resolve;
• isolation and withdrawal;
• extreme change of attitude and mood;
• unrelenting disparaging talk about hating his or her body;
• increasing rigidity about food to the point of eliminating healthy and necessary food for proper growth;
• excessive exercise and obsessive calorie counting; and
• strict and fad dieting practices.
— Deborah Russo, PsyD and Amy Spahr, LCSW, are on staff at Remuda Ranch Treatment Center.
Brown, F., & Slaughter, V. (2011). Normal body, beautiful body: Discrepant perceptions reveal a pervasive ‘thin ideal’ from childhood to adulthood. Body Image, 8(2), 119-125.
Brown, R., & Ogden, J. (2004). Children’s eating attitudes and behaviour: A study of the modeling and control theories of parental influence. Health Education Research: Theory and Practice, 19(3), 261-271.
Reel, J. J. (2000). Body image and physical self-perceptions among African-American and Caucasian women across the adult life span. Dissertation Abstracts International, 61(5-B).
Schuman, S. (2010). Parent weight-related attitudes and behaviors: Influence on child and adolescent body dissatisfaction. University of Florida Journal of Psychological Science, 1, 24-43.