Girls And Body Image: It's Apparently Worse Than Ever

In 1986, 80% of fourth-grade girls were dieting. WSJ reporter Jeffrey Zaslow interviewed 100 of them back then, and recently followed up with a few, asking if they think things are getting better for girls. The verdict: It's even worse.

Furthermore, writes Zaslow, "Those girls I interviewed are 32 and 33 years old now, and when I got back in touch with some of them last week, they said that they and their peers have never escaped society's obsession with body image. While none of them descended into eating disorders, some told stories of damaging diets and serious self-esteem issues regarding their weight." Gee, I love a happy ending!

In other cheery news, Zaslow's interviewees were right: It's gotten worse. These days, eating disorders are on the rise, girls as young as five are preoccupied with body image, and "Between 2000 and 2006, the percentage of girls who believe that they must be thin to be popular rose to 60% from 48%."

For about as long as I've been literate, journalists have been wringing their hands about little girls' body image problems in articles like the ones Zaslow wrote then and now. And yet, it hasn't gotten better. And people still act all shocked when they hear the latest statistics, as if it was OK when only around half of little girls believed thinness was a requirement for being popular — i.e., being liked — but 60%, whoa! That's just terrible! The question is, what are we going to do before another 20 years go by, and it's up to 75 or 80%, with 100% of fourth-grade girls dieting and new studies showing that female infants are worried their diapers make their butts look fat?

For those of you who were horrified by my suggestion that we should focus on encouraging healthy behavior for its own sake and quit freaking out about childhood obesity, this is one reason why I suggest that, and suggest it passionately. Zaslow notes that Claire Mysko, former director of the American Anorexia Bulimia Association (and, disclosure, an acquaintance of mine), "worries that childhood obesity-prevention efforts can make girls obsessive about weight." He also writes that a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing found preoccupation with body image "can be exacerbated by our culture's increased awareness of obesity, which leaves many non-overweight kids stressed about their bodies." (FYI, it also leaves overweight kids stressed about their bodies, but I guess we're supposed to think that's OK; obviously, there's ample evidence to suggest that feeling ugly, disgusting, frustrated, left out and ashamed leads directly to healthy weight loss. Just look around you.)

A lot of things have changed since 1986 — including, as Mysko points out, far more extreme retouching of images of the women who represent our culture's beauty standard — but one of the most obvious should be that we have lost our minds about fat. Whether or not obesity is as dramatic a public health crisis as we've been led to believe, the overwhelming message has been that individuals are responsible for solving it. Which means every day, the news brings dozens of new exhortations to lose weight in order not only to prevent your own early demise, but to lift the burden on our health care system and restore America's glory. For all but the thinnest of us, weight loss is cast not merely as a potential step toward better personal health but a moral obligation to society, to your children, to your partner, and to people who don't want to sit next to a fatty on the subway.

And we're supposed to be surprised that an overwhelming desire to be as thin as possible is gripping children ever younger and ever more tightly? Forgive me if I'm not.

Girls and Dieting, Then and Now [Wall Street Journal]
America's Moral Panic Over Obesity [The Atlantic]