Parents: Meet the competition for your child’s body image

By:  Chandra Johnson, Deseret News National

Editor’s note: This article is part of a two-part series on teens and body image. Read about the impact parents’ comments can have on their teens here.

 

In the island nation of Fiji, beautiful women are not described as being “thin,” “skinny” or even “fit.” The word often used is “jubu” — meaning hardy or strong.When Harvard researcher and psychiatrist Dr. Anne Becker arrived in Fiji in 1995, thick legs and a stout belly on a woman weren’t things to be dieted or whittled away in a gym, but a sign of health and strength that made her an asset to her community.

“As an eating disorder researcher, I would tell people about (eating disorders) and they would say, ‘Send them here, we don’t have that,’” Becker said. “In Fiji, so much of whether you were a good member of your community was in how you fed people.”

But that was before the cast of “Beverly Hills 90210” arrived on the island.

Becker conducted a groundbreaking study just as the Fiji government opened the country’s airwaves to western TV shows like “Melrose Place” and “Beverly Hills 90210.” What she found shocked her.

In just three years of TV exposure, the rate of teen disordered eating jumped from zero to 11 percent. Of the 63 teenage girls surveyed at the end of the study, 15 percent admitted to resorting to vomiting to control their weight (whether as part of disordered eating or a one-time solution), and 69 percent said they’d adopted some form of dieting — previously a foreign concept to most on the island. The numbers jumped so dramatically that Becker was initially skeptical of them and decided to cross-check the findings with interviews of the participants.

“It really surprised me at first,” Becker said. “But then in the interviews, the girls talked about seeing these beautiful people on TV and wanting to be like them.”

In the 1990s, when Becker was conducting her groundbreaking research, the “ideal body” U.S. fashion magazines promoted was “heroin chic” — a look that borrowed the dark eye circles and skeletal frames of drug addicts and applied them to disproportionately slender supermodels like Kate Moss. The media’s depiction of thinness as an aesthetic ideal is still cited by researchers as a contributing factor to body dissatisfaction among children and teens today.

Now, two decades later, there’s a new facet to the media obsession with weight loss: The obesity epidemic of recent years has led to countless articles and studies about differing definitions of fitness and advice about how to lose weight as quickly as possible for health reasons rather than mere aesthetics.

The two movements have completely different motivations for losing weight — the physique made popular by heroin chic was driven by fashion rather the health concerns associated with obesity. Yet for Massachusetts General Hospital child psychiatrist Dr. Steven Schlozman, there’s little difference between media messages about weight loss for aesthetics or for health. Both, he says, can be dangerous for kids.

“We felt like we’d gotten away from this in the ’90s with the concern over eating disorders as a result of heroin chic, but there are many kids today who develop eating disorders because of obesity,” Schlozman said. “The problem now is there’s so much pressure, not just to be skinny, but to be really fit and to be nearly obsessive about what you eat because of obesity.”

The issue of the media’s negative influence on children’s body image has not improved. A 1998 USA Today poll found that 47 percent of girls in 5th-12th grades reported they wanted to lose weight because they didn’t feel they measured up to magazine pictures of women, and 69 percent reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a “perfect body.” This year, a British psychiatric study which studied body image in 6,000 children until they were 14 found that body dissatisfaction for both boys and girls begins as early as age 8. The study found that one-fifth of girls who participated in the study identified pressure from the media as a contributing factor to their dismay with their bodies.

In a world where kids have unprecedented access to media messages about body image, Schlozman said, parents have to be more vigilant than ever to counteract the unrealistic fitness messages the media sends kids.

“It’s two sides to the same coin, especially when you see this celebration of incredibly fit or even overweight bodies — it’s easy to forget there’s a whole person there,” Schlozman said. “No matter what, that’s delivering a one-sided message that parents have a lot of power to help their kids overcome.”

Parents vs. media

In a time when kids are inundated with messages about the perfect body and ideal weight, parents must literally compete for influence over their children’s body image, said Renee Hobbs, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab.

“Parents are less able to limit or control their children’s media consumption than ever before,” Hobbs said. “Parents have reported to us in the past that they usually felt overwhelmed by their children’s media consumption by the time the child is 11. Now, it’s elementary school.”

Hobbs said that in 2006, teen girls were exposed to an average of 180 minutes of media per day, compared to just 10 minutes of parental interaction per day. Today, between Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and general Web surfing, those numbers have likely risen, and studies have shown that the window of time when kids have more confidence in their parents than the media is small.

A 2013 study from Michigan State University showed that children as young as 5 identify computers as being as good a source of accurate information as adults, though they were still likely to come to adults with questions. But by about age 10 or 11, Hobbs said that changes, as kids default more to the Internet to verify ideas of what’s normal or ideal, including weight and body image.

“Between age 6 and 10, most children will say they believe what their parents tell them over what they see in the media,” Hobbs said. “Between 10 and 11, it flips. At about age 11, studies show us that if my dad tells me one thing and the media tells me another, I’ll believe the media.”

As kids increasingly turn to the Internet for information, the health and body image messages they find can be confusing and dangerous, especially because it isn’t just articles about people who lost weight or even picture-perfect model bodies that kids contend with when comparing their bodies to the media they see.

So-called “thinspiration” sites are sprinkled throughout the Internet, often found as clickbait lining the bottom of everyday news or shopping websites. The sites — also called “pro ana” (for pro-anorexia) sites — promote eating disorders to achieve weight goals, resulting in sometimes near-fatal outcomes. As Common Sense Media reported, thinspiration sites are especially dangerous because they not only provide photos and instructions for exercising or starving down to a skeletal frame, but also create communities for teens seeking physical perfection that openly condone such practices.

Schlozman says the sheer volume of content pertaining to weight loss — whether through fitness, diet or eating disorder propaganda — can confuse kids about how they should look and what steps are appropriate for weight loss.

“Girls especially see these incredibly fit women, for example, who clearly devote all their time to being fit or thin, and they think that’s how we could and maybe should all look,” Schlozman said. “Even if kids did devote all their time to becoming fit, it wouldn’t be a good thing. There’s other things to growing up, and one of them is learning moderation.”

Dr. Dana Rofey, University of Pittsburg School of Medicine professor of adolescent medicine, says that even when magazines or TV shows try to be inclusive of other body types by hiring plus-sized models or actors, too much attention is paid to appearance rather than health.

“I saw a magazine just the other day that had a size 22 model on its cover. They had to mention her size,” Rofey said. “They’ll mention someone’s size, but there’s never a focus on what it looks like to be healthy.”

Reality check

A parent’s unrealistic expectations of a child’s weight can be even more damaging to kids’ self-esteem than the media. Just ask London-based writer Gillian Brown, who says she learned as a child to hate her body not from media depictions of svelte bodies, but from her own family. In an effort to get Brown’s weight under control, she says her family treated her differently from other, thinner family members.

“I’ve always been quite a fat person, but the first diet I remember being put on — I was about 7, which is pretty terrible when I think about it,” Brown said. “As I got older, I began to realize (from those around me) that my body was ‘wrong.’”

Schlozman and Rofey say that while it’s normal for parents to be concerned about their children’s weight, parents also have to keep their expectations for their children in check, as adults can also become swept up in media representations of “the perfect body” and wanting their kids to measure up.

Rofey thinks media outlets who doctor photos with editing software should publish when they do so. Until that becomes a common practice, Rofey says it’s up to parents to teach their kids the difference between real bodies and those found in the glossy pages of magazines.

“Parents need to try and re-center their children’s sense of what’s realistic for them, but the media also needs to focus on more realistic depictions of people in general,” Rofey said.

Schlozman says it’s crucial for parents to interrupt impractical messages kids get about appearance and fitness from the media with reality rather than more expectations.

“Unless there’s a health concern to be considered, like diabetes for example, that’s the only reason you need to take charge of your child’s weight for health reasons,” Schlozman said. “What you want to do the rest of the time is be proactive — find out if they’re happy about how they look and make sure they know what’s real and what’s not about appearance and the media.”

See original article here.