One of the reasons I went to graduate school was because I wanted to gain a better understanding of why women and girls develop disordered eating behaviors, what makes them worse, and most importantly, how to prevent them. And more and more research is telling us what many of the media experts at About-Face and its readers already know – positive body image and positive self-perception are the answer.
A few recent studies that have been published in the past few weeks highlight these issues well. One new study out of UCLA has again proven that strong self-perception is key to the prevention of risky behaviors in teen girls.
The results of this study showed that overweight girls who had high body satisfaction and who were happy with their size and shape were less likely to engage in a range of unhealthy and disordered eating behaviors like fasting, skipping meals, and self-induced vomiting. And extra-importantly, the study also showed that these girls had lower rates of anxiety and depression, which are so disturbingly common among girls with developing eating disorders.
And the best thing about the study’s results was the discussion that these public health experts, dieticians, and professors had, in which they emphasized that for effective, healthy weight-loss interventions for teens who may need to lose weight for real medical reasons (preventing the onset of diabetes or hypertension and increasing cardiovascular health, for example), these programs need to be rooted in positive self-esteem and the enhancement of self-image. When you feel better about yourself, you want to keep taking care of yourself. You are also more likely to want to share yourself with others, and creating positive social networks increases the likelihood that people will have supporters pushing them to stay healthy.
So why do companies, organizations, media outlets, and other vocal critics keep harping on the idea that shame, insults, and bullying will help people lose weight? To me, the root of this problem lies in the thought that anyone else’s weight is anyone else’s business. And another recent study has unfortunately shown something I find really upsetting. Even preschoolers – remember, that’s ages 2 to 5 – show negative perceptions of overweight children.
The way this study was conducted involved an adult reading four different stories to a group of children, in which one character was “nice” and the other was “mean.” They then showed the children pictures of one overweight figure and one normal weight figure, and asked them to select which one was the “nice” character from the story and which was the “mean” character.
Nearly half of all students said that in all four stories, the overweight figure was selected as the “mean” one. Mind you, these figures had no faces. No physical expressions. One was just bigger than the other. And because of that, the children thought they were meaner.
I mean… whoa. Ages 2–5 are in the early developmental stages, when children are absorbing and processing and incredible amount of information – verbally, visually, and physically. Weight is not a characteristic that is inherent in measures of good versus evil.
What this shows is that children are inundated with messages, both direct and indirect, from so many different sources at such a young age, that the idea of being overweight is coded as bad in so many ways, that it seems nearly inescapable. To me, this means we have to keep making intense efforts to combat these messages, because we are climbing one steep hill.