Shocking...but how did this happen?
Where did these young children, not even out of elementary school, learn to dread being overweight? At a time when they should be able to enjoy their childhood, what's making them worry so much about dieting and being thin?
Most of all, what is this anxiety doing to their bodies as they grow older? By the time they reach high school, 1 in 10 students have an eating disorder2: an abnormal pattern of eating too much or too little food, with a potentially devastating impact on their physical and emotional health. In a high school of 2,500, hundreds of students will struggle with eating disorders. Of all people with eating disorders, 90% are women between the ages of 12 and 25.
Mothers have discovered "diyet" plans penned by their 7-year-old daughters and passed around on the playground, instructing them to perform "seventeen poosh-ups" and "run up and down the driv way," while allowing them to eat "two keewee froots."
These girls have been taught that they need to diet, before they can even spell the word. When these weight-conscious little girls grow up, they become eating-disordered women with unhealthy body images, obsessed with maintaining a weight that is often low enough to be physically dangerous...even deadly.
Some may not wait to grow up. 8-year-old Dana from the UK refused to eat more than 175 calories a day, and had to be fed through an IV and admitted to a 12-week inpatient program. Hundreds more children, aged 5 to 9, have undergone treatment for their eating disorders.
The anxieties they experience are the product of a society and media culture that prizes a thin image for women above anything else, and devalues any woman who strays outside the false "norm" of a skinny body. In pursuit of that unattainable goal, they will literally starve themselves to death. They are dying to be like Barbie.
In the 1960s, toymaker Mattel released "Slumber Party Barbie," along with combs, hair rollers and a sleeping bag. This Barbie set included a scale permanently stuck at 110 lbs, and a small book titled "How To Lose Weight."
The only words written in the book were the all-capital exhortation, "DON'T EAT!." Decades later, this advice would re-emerge as the code word "I.D.E.A." used online by sufferers of eating disorders - short for the chilling slogan: I don't eat anymore.
Starting with their very first toy doll, girls are exposed to highly unrealistic images of female bodies, and are taught to model these images in their own lives. The ubiquitous Barbie doll is stated to be 5'9" tall and weigh 110 lbs -- about 35 lbs below a healthy weight for a woman of that height.
With these proportions, a woman would not have the necessary body fat to menstruate at all, and her body mass index would approach the "severely underweight" range3.
The Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders has calculated how much an average healthy woman's body would have to change in order for her to have the proportions of a Barbie doll.
They found that women would have to grow two feet taller, extend their neck length by 3.2 inches, gain 5 inches in chest size, and lose 6 inches in waist circumference. No woman could ever hope to achieve such impossible dimensions, and yet young girls are shown that this is a body to emulate4.
The impact of these dolls on the self-image and eating habits of girls is very real, and very measurable. In a psychological study, girls from age 5 to 8 were shown images of either a Barbie doll, or a more realistic "size 16" doll. Those who saw the Barbie dolls had less self-esteem and worse body image, and had a stronger desire to be thin5.
When girls aged 6 to 10 were assigned to play with either a very thin doll or an average-sized doll, the children who had played with the thin doll ate significantly less food. The bodies represented by these popular dolls - the toy that every girl must have - are directly influencing how children see themselves, as well as how they feed themselves5.
In an effort to better understand the reality of how far Barbie really is from the average woman, we created an infographic featuring a photo-realistic rendering of what Barbie would look like compared to an average woman, along with an apples to apples comparison of her dimensions to that of average women, anorexic women, and fashion models6. Click the link button below to see our work.
The Average Woman vs. the Average Model
In a one survey, teen girls were asked what they would wish for if they had three magic wishes. These girls could have wished for anything in the world. Their number one wish? "To lose weight, and keep it off."
What made them want this so badly, more than anything else?7
83% of adolescent girls read fashion magazines for an average of 4 hours every week. In these teen and women's magazines, advertisements for diets and weight loss programs are 10 times more common than they are in men's magazines. Girls are being taught to obsess over their appearance, their weight, and whether their bodies are "good enough."
The average American woman is 5'4" tall, and weighs 166 lbs. In comparison, the average model is 5'10" tall and weighs only 107 lbs.8 These are the ubiquitously thin bodies used to advertise the clothes, the products and the fashions that women are told they need to purchase for themselves.
Women are made to believe that these products, essential to their appearance, will only look good on a body that they can't have without seriously endangering their health. The clothes they want to wear are presented as being meant for someone much slimmer, and that's who they seek to become.
As the average weight of American women has increased, the weight of models has been steadily decreasing for decades. By the 1990s, idealized body images of women in the media had reached an average of 13% to 19% below their expected weight. For context, a weight 15% below expected is a major criteria for the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa.9 These unrealistic depictions are leading women directly into eating disorders.
How The Media Makes Women Anorexic
In a study of anorexic women in outpatient programs, many reported using fashion and beauty magazines to compare their own bodies to the thin ideal portrayed within.
These women were often able to recall highly accurate bodily dimensions and biographical details of the models featured in these magazines, and frequently pointed out specific body parts, such as long legs, that they wished to emulate.10
Others reported seeking out the exact weight of women portrayed in magazines, and then dedicating themselves to ensuring that their own weight was lower. "I wanted to be the best anorexic," said one patient. Many would cut out images of the very thinnest women in these magazines, collecting their pictures as "motivators" for their own weight loss.10
What many women don't realize is that the models in magazines often have bodies that are literally impossible. In recent years, the bodies of abnormally thin models have been even further distorted by the pure fiction of Photoshop. Image retouching has become responsible for the creation of body types that could not be achieved by any real woman.
When photo editors decide that a celebrity's body just isn't a good fit for their magazine, they'll sometimes cut and paste her face onto an entirely different body. The waists of perfectly healthy women are digitally pinched to an unrealistic degree, and their thighs are slimmed down to resemble sticks - the perfect Barbie doll look.
If a model's ribs are very visible due to her extremely low weight, editors will brush over them to make them appear less prominent. Women are thus confronted with the conflicting demands of imitating this emaciated look, but without displaying any of the actual emaciation.
Celebrity women themselves have often objected to how their photos have been edited in magazines. On the September 2008 cover of Elle, Jessica Simpson's hips were so dramatically pared down that her left one appeared to be entirely absent - even her hair was wider than her hips.
In an issue of Self magazine devoted to "Total Body Confidence" and how to "Reach Your Dream Weight," Kelly Clarkson's body was retouched to appear substantially more thin than she actually is, hardly an encouragement for women to be confident with their bodies. In her Glamour cover shoot, America Ferrera's arms and shoulders were noticeably narrowed, with her skin blurred and glossed into an unrealistic shine.
This was the image they chose to use for their "1st Annual Figure-Flattery Issue" - a style created not through any real options available to women, but through the utter unreality of digital embellishment. Is it any wonder that women suffering from eating disorders often feel that they can never be thin enough?
The Fiji Effect: Television's Impact On a Nation
In 1995, the province of Nadroga in Fiji had experienced only one reported case of an eating disorder.11 A very traditional culture, Nadroga held values that prized a robust body and appetite, while discouraging diets and exercises meant to change body shape.
Contrary to Western societies, this was a culture that did not idealize ultra-thin body types as desirable. But by 1998, 69% of adolescent girls reported dieting to lose weight, and 74% said they feel "too big or fat."11
Starting in 1995, television was introduced to the province. Within three years, the effects of being saturated with diet ads and images of Western models were striking. By 1998, 97% of girls in Nadroga had watched some television, and one in ten of them reported inducing vomiting to control their weight.
In comparison, no girls reported vomiting for weight control in 1995, before television came to Nadroga. In 1998, 29% of girls scored highly on a survey of disordered eating, compared to only 12% in 1995, and the girls with a television in their home were more than three times as likely to score highly for disordered eating.11
Why had their eating habits and self-perception changed so much? They were taught that dieting, exercise and a slimmer body were necessary for success and achievement in their lives. 83% of girls said that television had influenced them to feel differently about their bodies and their weight, and many said they now wanted to change their bodies to be more like the images of Western characters on television.
40% felt that losing weight would help them advance their careers or make them more useful at home. When television came to Nadroga, it wasn't alone: it also introduced anxieties about weight, an idealized image of Western thin bodies, and the idea that vomiting one's food is the path to success.11
Making a Mockery of Women's Weight
Thin female characters aren't the only women represented on television, but they are far more common, and are treated much differently than average-weight or overweight female characters.
A study of prime-time sitcoms found that women below the average weight were overrepresented, and women were more frequently the subject of negative comments as their weight increased.12
In this study, 95% of the female main characters on sitcoms were of thin or average weight, whereas only 5% were of above-average weight. However, only 31% of Americans are of average or below-average weight, and the remainder are considered overweight or obese. 14% of these female characters, largely those of average or above-average weight, were subjected to insulting remarks about their bodies by male characters.12
Most shockingly, when these larger female characters were insulted by men, the sitcom "laugh track" depicted an audience laughing 80% of the time.12 These laugh tracks give the impression that degrading women for their weight is widely seen as comical, acceptable and praiseworthy, demonstrating to women that their society will mock and ridicule them if they can't make themselves thin.
This is the even darker side of thin bodies being over valued - the bodies of heavier women are seen as having no value at all.
Thinspired: The Community Cult of Starvation
These social attitudes toward weight and depictions of women's bodies have caused millions of women to develop eating disorders, yet the full extent of the damage is even more devastating. Increasingly, an online culture has emerged of women who not only admit to suffering from an eating disorder, but don't consider themselves to be "suffering" at all.
They believe that no matter the risks to their health, a thin body is so desirable that the pursuit of such a figure could never be a disorder - and nothing is too extreme when it comes to losing weight.
These proponents of anorexia and bulimia as a lifestyle have gathered under the "pro-ana" banner. Together, they share diet "tips" that are indistinguishable from malnutrition and starvation, encourage one another to have the willpower to deny food, and trade in "thinspiration" or "thinspo" images of models and celebrities who represent the bodies they want to have.
This disturbing movement has frequently received high-profile coverage in the media, and individual pro-ana websites and forums have often been shut down by their webhosts. Nowadays, "pro-ana" users congregate on social networks such as Twitter and Tumblr, forming a loose-knit and distributed community that's almost impossible to suppress.
Their blogs and profiles are plastered with pictures of women with spindly arms, protruding hip bones, and thighs that don't touch. Text is overlaid on a photo of doughnuts, reading: "You will live without it." Readers are asked, "Would you rather have collarbones, or sweets?", and encouraged to "drink more water" - a common pro-ana technique for satisfying hunger pains without eating.
A 50-day "Ana Boot Camp Diet" is passed around, with each day's permitted food intake ranging from 500 calories, to nothing at all. For comparison, during the Minnesota Starvation Experiment in the 1940s, volunteers in the starvation group were given 1,560 calories a day - three times the maximum amount allowed by this dangerous "diet."13
The ABC Diet Plan (source)
|Week 8||Fast||Slowly return to a normal diet|
The pro-ana community is a hotbed of potentially deadly habits and attitudes, yet its members' uniform agreement that anorexia is admirable can make disordered eating seem normal. Its effects can be seen even in people who do not suffer from eating disorders. Women who were directed to read a pro-ana website were found to experience a decrease in their self-esteem and how attractive they believed themselves to be, while reporting that they felt heavier and more conscious of their weight.14
Yet the impact of pro-ana sites extends even further than negative self-image and weight-consciousness. In one study, 84% of people who visited a pro-ana webpage had decreased their food intake by an average of 2,470 calories over the following week. However, only 56% of them were consciously aware that they had been eating less, and 24% continued to restrict their diet even three weeks after a single visit to these sites. 14
Much like images in the media, the encouragement of disordered eating affects people without them even knowing it. For women who are struggling with anorexia, the pro-ana community can put their health in ever-greater danger at a time when they're most in need of help.
Fighting Back Against The Barbie Ideal
Anorexia nervosa is the single deadliest mental health condition. 5% to 20% of people diagnosed with anorexia will ultimately die from its ravaging effects on the body and mind: cardiac complications, organ failure, and even suicide. 1
These are the fruits of a media culture that prizes dangerously skinny, digitally altered bodies over those of real, healthy women.
From underweight and anatomically impossible Barbies, to jokes at the expense of normal-weight female characters on television, women are trained to hate their own bodies from birth until death - and pointed toward starvation diets as the only way to be loved and appreciated.
In a society where a healthy weight is insulted and derided at every turn, while risking your health for an unobtainable ideal is considered normal, can we really be surprised that so many women would rather die than risk being "fat?"
While relapse is common, and full recovery can take years, it is possible to overcome anorexia. With the proper treatment, people suffering from eating disorders can achieve a healthy weight and re-learn good dietary habits.
An awareness of the influences that distorted media images and marketing have on self-esteem can help prevent eating disorders before they even begin. Know what you're watching, and know what it can do to your self-image. Don't be afraid to tell your friends: you'd rather be alive than be Barbie.
Double Trouble: How Eating Disorders Can Lead to Drug and Alcohol Addictions
9% of the general population have a drug or alcohol addiction issue, a figure that's worrisome enough on its own. However, a staggering 50% of those with eating disorders also abuse drugs and alcohol15, either to aid with taking weight off or to cope with body dysmorphia issues or weight loss failure. There are a number of prescription and over-the-counter medications that are used and abused to suppress appetite or inhibit fat absorption, but many women also find themselves using cocaine, crystal meth or other illicit substances for their appetite suppressing properties. When recreational use turns to habit and then into a full-fledged addiction, this deadly dual-diagnosis often leads to a whole host of other physical and psychological problems, where malnourishment becomes only one of many in a vicious downward spiral.