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We are a nation blind-sided by image, our psyche saturated by thousands of perfect body images from television and movies, as well as ads in magazines and billboards. In pursuit of thinness, we battle the bulge with diet and exercise, and purchase thousands of diet and exercise products. We battle to death the inevitable onslaught of aging by buying the “fountain of youth” -- skin buffing, cosmetic surgery, liposuction, breast implants, Botox, and other treatments -- to preserve our youthful appearance.
Unfortunately, our children are also bombarded from birth with thousands of Photo Shop images of thin celebrities and models, which they perceive as accurate, as well as innumerable advertisements about dieting, Botox, and exercise products. Our children believe as God’s truth that a good self-image is having a thin body.
The following statistics from the Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders are sobering:
1. One in five women struggles with an eating disorder or disordered eating.
2. Approximately 24 million people in the U.S. and 70 million people worldwide struggle with an eating disorder.
3. Nearly half of all Americans know someone with an eating disorder.
4. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
5. The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate of ALL causes of death for females 15 to 24 years of age.
Seven out of ten girls believe they don’t measure up, which includes academically, relationships and their appearance. (Girl Scout Survey)
One in ten boys now suffers with an eating disorder, though this statistic is more difficult to quantify.
The late Duchess of Windsor, whose casual comment, “You can never be too rich enough or too thin enough” has become the mantra of Western civilization today. There is a glaring disparity between most women’s desire to wear the “ideal” size 0 or 2, and the average size of the American woman which is currently 12 to 14.
Our obsession with thinness equated with beauty is now part of our consciousness – not only to most girls and women, but also to some young boys and men. Our outward appearance is now the standard by which to measure others and ourselves. We have come to the edge of an abyss where many of our youth totter precariously, believing that in order to fit in, they must be thin. The new word for eating disorders is “thinspiration.” Some engage in anorexic behaviors; others binge and purge by secretly stuffing themselves with food, then vomit or use laxatives to get rid of it. It is terrifying to know these young people who secretly engage in these behaviors may die from their disordered eating.
“Pro-ana” (anorexia) and “pro-mia” (bulimia) sites have proliferated on the Worldwide Web in a relatively short period of time, where one can learn how to stay thin, how to hide their “diet” from their parents, how to vomit quietly so no one can hear, how to use laxatives to lose weight, to name just a few. One of the website bloggers informed her readership that being anorexic was the only way, and she refused any help to recover.
Extreme dieters have their own “Ten Thin Commandments,” on the web, which is considered very dangerous to young people considering extreme dieting:
1. If you are not thin, then you are not attractive.
2. Being thin is more important than being healthy.
3. You must buy clothes, cut your hair, take laxatives, starve yourself, do anything to appear thinner.
4. You shall not eat without feeling guilty.
5. You shall not eat fattening food without punishing one’s self afterward.
6. You shall count calories and restrict your intake accordingly.
7. What the scale says is the most important thing.
8. Losing weight is good; gaining weight is bad.
9. You can never be too thin.
10. Being thin and not eating are signs of true willpower and success.
I have since learned that eating disorders are complicated behaviors that may have developed from ADD, ADHD, anxiety and/or depression, that neurotransmitters in the brain are faulty and seratonin levels are skewed, and that perfectionism may be a driving force in one who has an eating disorder. The person who has an eating disorder has a profound fear of becoming fat and worries obsessively what others think of her. People say, “Just make her eat,” but it is not that simple. Just as rape is not about sex, eating disorders are not about food. It is about control over your body when you feel you can’t control events in your life. It is debatable whether advertising, movies, and Photoshop photos of thin people “cause” a person to turn to an eating disorder to achieve thinness, but ask any young girl about the altered images of models and movie stars, and she will tell you, “I want to look like her.”
After my children’s book Thin Club was published, I was amazed at how many young women from all walks of life approached me and expressed they had anorexia, bulimia, or binging and purging. These women may or may not have sought therapy and still daily cope with the shadowy triggers of the bathroom scale or seeing their image in the mirror. When I hear their stark admissions, I think of the untold numbers of people who are actively and secretly engaged in an eating disorder. I believe, because this illness is so secretive, the true numbers of people suffering with eating disorders are not known. This epidemic reveals that many of us do not know how to eat in a healthy, balanced way, and many more of us live with the idea that we are lacking in some way that a thin body will make perfect.
Hopefully, the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way. Spain’s setting a limit of a model’s body fat index, France’s attempt to close down eating disorder websites, Kiera Knightley’s stand that she will not have her breast size digitally enhanced in an upcoming movie, and Queen Latifah’s lucrative career in Broadway and film while losing a few pounds by following a healthy diet are the examples we need for our children to see that it is O.K. to just be you, and therein lies your true beauty.
Each of us must re-evaluate our definition of beauty and voice these avant-garde standards to the media and our children, our most precious treasure. I hope we may soon set aside our emphasis on our outward appearance and turn to see another human being for his or her compassion, joie de vivre, loving nature, and humble character.
I recall a photograph of the Dalai Lama taken a few years ago prior to his appearance in New York. He was not dressed in haute coutre, only simply attired in a saffron robe and flip-flops. Yet, his countenance was ebulliently joyful and serene. His true beauty radiated in his smiling face and eyes. I don’t believe we need to be become ascetics and eschew materiality, but we need to value what is truly precious within each one of us – kindness, faith, compassion, peace, love, and healing – values that are immeasurable.
Kim Tennant is author and illustrator of two children’s books, The Ordinary Extraordinary Boy, and Thin Club. You may reach Kim at www.mysticseabooks.com.