Skinny and skinnier

In the today’s Wall Street Journal (Girls and Dieting, Then and Now), Jeffrey Zaslow follows up on a story he wrote in 1986 about weight consciousness among fourth grade girls. They wanted to be skinny so boys would like them, and most were on a diet even at that young age. It’s 2009 and he re-interviews some of them:

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.

They felt—and recent studies make clear—that the weight-focused pressures on young girls today are even stronger. In the now-quaint era of 1986, the girls had told me about drinking Diet Cokes and watching Jane Fonda exercise videos. Ms. Totonchi had read a teen novel about a girl with an eating disorder.

But today’s fourth-grade girls are barraged by media images of thinness. They can cruise the Internet visiting “Pro-Ana” (pro-anorexia) Web sites and can view thousands of “thinspiration” videos on YouTube celebrating emaciated young women.

“Models look like popsicle sticks,” Suzanne Reisman told me in fourth grade. Today, she amends her observation: “Now they look like toothpicks.”

I’m actually a little surprised at the observation that the pressure has gotten worse, and am not sure it’s really true.

I’m a decade older than the interviewees. When I was growing up in the DC suburbs it seemed like there were 1 or 2 overweight kids in each of my elementary school classes. Most kids were pretty thin or “normal” weight. Probably there were some kids with eating disorders but I didn’t recognize it. When I see kids now a substantial minority are overweight, some significantly so. Teachers and administrators are heavier, too. You’d think that would make people less likely to feel the need to be very thin –when just being “normal” would make them relatively skinny. Surely not everyone believes what they read in magazines and see on TV.

I wonder whether the fixation on obesity prevention and remediation is driving some of this behavior. In particular, is the emphasis on finding and treating kids who are obese making people overly self-conscious?

I’ve written before about the pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites, which are pretty shocking. (Among other things they coach readers on how to hide eating disorders from parents and doctors.) But when I’ve mentioned this phenomenon to pediatrician friends they were unaware. Instead they mainly focused on the obese population.

September 2, 2009

3 thoughts on “Skinny and skinnier”

  1. That’s what’s fascinating about the problem: although girls feel more pressure than ever to be thin, kids are more overweight than ever. Models and celebrities are much thinner today than they were in the past. It is nearly impossible to meet these unrealistic standards. So even kids who are healthy hate how they look. And unhappy kids may turn to food for comfort. (I know I did.) It’s a vicious cycle.

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