July 17 2012

Weight Obsessed America

Julie Gunlock

Two new studies out of the UK reveal a dangerous obsession with being thin—estpecially among young women and girls. In one study, involving 3,000 young girls, it was revealed that half of those aged 13 and 14 were dieting.  The other study found that seven in ten women are so anxious about their body shape that they focused on their weight three times a day. These studies mirror a study conducted in the U.S. which found that 80 percent of all 10-year-old girls have dieted at some point in their very young lives.

I'm not sure this should be a surprise to anyone. A child simply can't avoid the messaging about weight. From the grocery store check out lanes littered with bikini-clad women to the multiple television shows dedicated to weight loss, there is literally no way to keep these images from a child's eye. Heck, even Disney's slimming down their villians!

And of course, we have a First Lady who regularly suggests that her perfectly toned arms are her best achievement.

There's no doubt that parents are concerned. According to a survey of parents conducted last year by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, parents are starting to see the impact of the anti-obesity messages (which might more appropriately called “thin messages”) on children.  In the study, 30% of parents of children age 6-14 report worrisome eating behaviors and physical activity in their children; 17% of parents report that their children are worried about their weight; 7% say their children have been made to feel bad at school about what or how much they were eating.

There’s no doubt that our culture is obsessed with weight and while it’s nothing new, it has certainly become more intense, and more difficult to avoid—especially for children.  Remember, children live in an era of BMI report cards—little pamphlets of horror sent home to parents telling them nothing about their child’s academic performance or behavior but rather if their kid is fat (despite BMI being a poor measurement of health).  And of course, there’s the now ubiquitous school-sponsored “health advisory councils” to ensure schools promote a healthy environment for their students.  Going a step further, some schools have suggested children wear electronic bracelets to monitor their food intake…at home—a responsibility formerly assigned to parents. But don’t forget those popular fat shaming television advertisements explaining to vulnerable children that there’s no worse condition that being overweight.

A better message for children would be to couple the eat healthy/get exercise message with reminders that people come in all shapes and sizes (maybe the White House can dust off those old "appreciate diversity" talking points) and that genetics play a role in weight. Teaching children proper nutrition is a normal part of parenting but so is explaining that not everyone gets to look like a super model.

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