I know it’s been a while since I’ve written – I took six weeks off to finish my dissertation and prepare for its defense (I passed!), and to take a bit of a breather after all that required writing! But what better way to start a new month than with a new post?
One of the many reasons I went to graduate school to study adolescent female and women’s health 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 studies are telling us what many researchers, clinicians, and patients themselves have been telling us for years.
A few recent studies in particular 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 more importantly, the study also showed that these girls had lower rates of anxiety and depression, which are so disturbingly common among girls with burgeoning 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 as well as a community that makes them feel worthwhile, appreciated, and worth the kind of self-care that diet and exercise changes require.
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 misguided thought that anyone else’s weight is anyone else’s business. It isn’t.
Another recent study has unfortunately shown something I find really upsetting. Preschoolers - remember, that’s ages 2-5 – 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 – and learning how to reason. We do not need judgments about others’ weight getting ingrained at this age, creating perceptions that are very difficult to change. Of course, this one study bears repeating, and should incorporate additional measures of exploring these outcomes; nonetheless, these results are troubling.
Of course, this study begs the revisiting of one of my most pressing points on this blog. Weight, just like food, is not a characteristic that is inherent in measures of good versus evil. That’s very dangerous territory to traverse – once one allows weight to dictate the assessment of whether or not someone is not only of value and worth (societally speaking, this already happens, when overweight people are ignored, more easily dismissed, not taken as seriously), but whether or not they are actually truly ‘bad’ or ‘mean’ or capable of certain sins because they are overweight, one’s morality becomes game for critics. I also always remain shocked at some critics’ short-sightedness in this relam – if you yourself gain weight in the future – something which may happen for a variety of reasons – are you readily willing to take on the label of weakness, ‘meanness’, gluttony? The impassioned rhetoric around the blaming and shaming of overweight people is so starkly in need of an infusion of compassion.
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.