Starving For Perfection

Hope and Healing for Eating Disorders



The average women’s magazine cover promises a diet plan that can’t fail—and pictures a dessert that will never be part of it. Advertising images portray models whose body types belong to a scant five percent of the population—or, thanks to the unmentioned miracle of airbrushing, to no one at all. Experts say it’s a picture-perfect setup for eating disorders.

Few are more vulnerable than those who have the least life experience. And if they’re young and female, chances are that society is already sending them other mixed messages, too.

“Many of the teens I work with have been exposed since childhood to commercials for sugary, fatty foods,” explains Samantha Foxall, of the youth group she facilitates. “Now, popular culture is bombarding them with size-0 models. That’s a very confusing set of messages for anyone, especially a young girl.”

“Long before their bodies have even finished growing, girls as young as eight or nine are beginning to ‘diet’ and limit their eating, because they believe that to be accepted, they need to look like the images they see in popular media,” observes media analyst Jean Kilbourne.

Kilbourne’s documentary films, such as Slim Hopes, have alerted Americans to the distorted body images that help the dieting industry flourish, keep women frustrated, and put young girls at risk. For example, “The body type most commonly pictured—tall, slender, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped—is one that belongs genetically to a very small percentage of the total population, 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 ideals, increasing numbers of girls view dieting as a necessity and experience eating disorders that are damaging their bodies irreparably. A Harvard Eating Disorders Center study found that 31 percent of 10-year-old girls say they fear being fat; 52 percent of 14-year-old girls feel better about themselves if they’re dieting.

Why Girls Begin to ‘Disappear’

Catherine Steiner-Adair, director of eating disorders education and prevention at McLean Hospital, describes a connection between the skills of self-expression and girls’ efforts to control their eating and body size. They 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. They begin to mimic older women by suppressing anger, hiding their feelings and feigning happiness.

“A nine-year-old will tell you, ‘I think ...’” says Steiner-Adair, “but by 11 or 12, a girl is more likely to begin her sentence with ‘I don’t know ...’”.

As her voice begins to disappear, a girl may try to ‘shrink’ in other ways, too. When they don’t feel acceptance for expressing themselves, girls often seek shelter in some form of control. The most common focus is their body and eating.

“I had definitely ‘lost my voice’ and my way,” says Jennifer H., a teacher in her 20s who is in recovery from an eating disorder. “Now, I try to visualize the healthy food I choose as God’s gift to feed my true power and my true voice.”

Teachers and other youth mentors often want to support girls, but may not know what to do, notes Katie Cane, formerly of Girls, Inc., in New Hampshire. “We’re entrusted with a weighty mission to awaken in them a healthier path for themselves, both spiritually and physically, and it helps to understand the real hunger behind body-image issues and their attempts to control their eating,” she says.

A Holistic View of Beauty

Our body itself is an invitation to contemplate the wonder of the spiritual realities reflected in creation, observes Foxall. “The very unity of its parts and functions demonstrates a wonderful wholeness and interrelationship, both in ourselves and the world around us.  This is important to emphasize to young people, particularly young girls, who will often be the first teachers of the next generation.”

It’s easier to see our body as the wondrous gift it is when we recognize something it has done unasked on our behalf, like fighting off an infection, climbing a mountain or learning a new skill.

“One of the things I’m working at the hardest is loving and accepting my body as the gift it is, committed to my care,” says Jennifer H. “I’m learning to value its functioning, and to truly understand that it is the home of my spirit.”

Help to Avoid the Body-Image Trap

Strategies of informed intervention and conscious role modeling can help girls bypass potential eating disorders, to adopt healthy attitudes and higher self-esteem:

• Actively adopt a mentorship role. Adolescents often listen to a teacher or other adult who is not their parent.

• Listen and watch girls closely. Create opportunities for them to feel perceived by you and potentially open up, says Foxall. “I often do this by asking them to help me create materials for an activity and consequently, we visit.”

• Acquaint girls with facts that offset advertising hype. Point out how mixed messages and false images target them specifically. “I videotape outrageous samples and then we watch them in class and take them apart and expose them for just what they’re trying to do,” Foxall says. “The girls love it.”

• Help girls get acquainted with their physical strengths, advises Jeannie Hunt, who conducts workshops for older elementary and junior-high students in Western Massachusetts. “In one of my workshops, I had young women use their voices in a variety of ways, including noisy ones, to learn that they can respond differently, and that they actually have a voice to use. They were amazed at how strong and powerful they felt.” Involvement in theater arts can also help.

• Create opportunities for girls to offer their ideas and feel accepted doing so. Ask them to consult with you about a personal problem that you’re trying to solve, such as how to get along with another person.

• Have girls role play effective self-expression as they act out how they might respond to a challenging situation. Coach them on how to speak up when it’s scary to share something, or how to express concern about an issue or problem without jeopardizing a friendship.

• Monitor what you do and say for anything that might reinforce the individual’s damaging beliefs. Girls aren’t the only ones affected by unrealistic cultural norms. Eighty percent of women asked what they wish for most, said “to be thin” or “to lose weight,” notes Kilbourne.

• Expand and bolster girls’ self-concepts by encouraging activities that diversify their experiences, fortify their emotional strengths and develop their talents and interests. Also, widen their circle away from contact only with peers by increasing their interaction with age groups other than their own.

“One of the best ways to help young women avoid the eating disorder/poor body image pitfall is for those of us who have walked the road ourselves to point out the potholes along the way,” says Jennifer H. “The hope is that other young woman will be able to sidestep the very deliberate, unhealthy, unrealistic images of ‘beauty’ that are readily available at the magazine stand.”


Phyllis Ring is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire. Contact her at www.PhyllisRing.com.

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