Recently I had the honor of speaking at the West Coast Women’s Show on the topic of “The Relentless Pursuit of Thinness.” This subject is not only relevant because I’m a counselor specializing in Eating Disorders, but because I am a woman raised in a culture that constantly tries to remind me that I am too fat.
Standing in line at the supermarket I am confronted with tabloids such as “Oprah battles her weight again,” and “Jessica Simpson’s fans outraged that she gained 20 lbs.” I go home and turn on the television to an endless array of ads selling fat-burners, cellulite reduction pills, and machines that promise to magically rid me forever of my dimpled thighs and belly fat. There continue to be a host of programs that perpetuate the ‘make-over’ phenomena which include dangerous and invasive surgeries and treatments such as liposuction, collagen injections, chemical peels, chin, cheek, breast implants, facelifts, even labia surgery.
In recent decades there has been an unprecedented explosion of commercial enterprises whose basic raison d’etre is to ensure that women and girls will continue to wage war upon their bodies. We know that women are dying at the hands of the plastic surgeons, that eating disorders have reached epidemic rates and fashion models are collapsing on the runways and are dying of starvation.
Curiously, while fashion designers, photographers and editors continue to dictate an impossibly thin aesthetic standard, women in North America are getting bigger. With the advent of fast food and more sedentary lifestyles (largely due to the computer), we are experiencing increasing morbid obesity as a society, especially in our youth. We are living in contradictory times. For example research shows that while real woman are actually statistically growing larger; the average North American woman is 5’6” tall and weighs 140 lbs. However, models, actresses and Miss America contestants are less curvaceous than in previous decades. A 1999 study showed that according to Canadian standards, more than 1/3 of the beauty contestants that year fit the criterion for Anorexia Nervosa.
People Magazine conducted a poll where only 9% of women were completely satisfied with their bodies and 93% had tried to lose weight. In Canada, polls indicate nearly half of women consider themselves overweight, and the #1 wish of girls between the ages of 11 and 17 is to lose weight. British Columbia’s McCreary Centre Society conducted a large research project of 30,500 seven to grade 12 students. The results were staggering, over half of the girls were trying to lose weight and more than a third had binge eaten and 7% had purged. One-fifth of the boys were trying to lose weight, 14% had dieted in the past year, 18% had binge-eaten and 3% had purged.
In light of our cultural preoccupation with thinness British Columbia spends about $3.4 million on hospital-based care for eating disorders; with a recent analysis demonstrating that our province may be spending up to 30 times as much on long-term disability payments for people with eating disorders. The need for early prevention and intervention is necessary.
Media literacy is absolutely necessary not only in the schools to protect our youth, but in our homes and community we need to model healthy eating, exercise and positive attitudes about our bodies. We need to teach critical thinking to our youth about how media industries operate and how and why images are constructed. We need to challenge the commercial domain, become mythbusters and focus our attention in the direction of the true culprits rather than waging war on our bodies.
Jacqueline Gautier is a counselor specializing in eating disorders.