How To Help Your Daughter Get Rid Of Eating Disorders
American culture is preoccupied with body image and weight. For example, according to “The Facts About Figures,” the average height and weight of an American girl is 54 and 142 pounds; yet the average height and weight of a model is 59 and 110 pounds. Our advertisements are filled with images of beautiful young women used as backdrops to sell cars, cake mixes, and cell phone service. And while girls are more dissatisfied with their bodies than boys are, boys are not immune to this pressure, either. One of the unintended results of dismantling gender stereotypes is that boys and girls have adopted some of each other’s more usual pressures. In addition to their own traditional challenges, like boys, girls are smoking earlier and having sex more indiscriminately. Like girls, boys are paying more attention to their bodies and the desire to conform to a new idealized version of the “buff ” young man.
Every girl and mother we spoke with had stories to tell about eating disorders. An excessive struggle for perfection can result in a girl starving herself to attain a dangerous ideal. As a consequence, many girls lead secretive and isolated lives, disconnected from family, friends, and themselves. For example, in “Feminism and Adolescent Girls” Lisa, a sophomore in college, reveals an experience she had with her friend Vanessa.
Lisa said, “From preschool up until fourth grade, I had a classmate named Vanessa. She was friends with everybody, and everyone loved her. Ten years later in Hong Kong, I ran into a mutual friend, Nicki, who was Vanessa’s freshman roommate in college. When I inquired about Vanessa, she took out her wallet and showed me a picture of her. Vanessa had the same great smile and the same almost white blond hair, but then Nicki remarked that she is now anorexic. Later that same summer, I learned that while Vanessa was at Harvard taking a summer course, her anorexia had gotten so bad that she was hospitalized because of it. It made me sad to wonder what happened to the fun-loving, carefree six-year-old that everyone loved?”
The obsession with weight affects more girls than boys; as a result, girls struggle more with eating disorders . According to one survey, reported in The Riverdeep Current, “The Beauty Within,” when asked what they would wish for if they had just one wish, the overwhelming majority of girls aged 11 to 17 would wish to be thinner. According to Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. (ANRED), the focus on weight is particularly painful for girls during puberty, when they gain an average of 40 pounds and grow 10 to 12 inches. Many girls don’t understand that weight gained during puberty is not permanent. Puberty is quite a stressful and emotional time, but for these preadolescent girls to be fed a diet of distorted images of women is destructive to their view of what is normal. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation reported in 1996 that the percentage of American girls who are “happy with the way I am” drops from 60 percent in elementary school to an alarming 29 percent in middle and high school.
While women have achieved much and dismantled many barriers, they still struggle with the weight issue. A London medical school study, reported in “The Beauty Within,” reveals that more than half of women overestimate the size of their bodies, when they have no trouble estimating the size of other things. When asked to estimate the width of a box, 50 average-sized women were able to get the width almost exactly. When asked to look in a mirror and estimate the width of their own bodies, the women consistently overestimated the size of their waists by 25 percent and their hips by 16 percent.
It is estimated that 10 million females in the United States— almost all of them teenagers and young women—have serious eating disorders. Although eating disorders, and bulimia and anorexia specifically, are seen most often among more affluent white girls, Ginia Bellafante reports in her January 2003 New York Times article, “Young and Chubby,” that they also occur among different racial and socioeconomic groups as well as increasingly younger girls. By age 13, 53 percent of girls are unhappy with their bodies; by age 18, 78 percent are dissatisfied.
This is one instance where knowledge may not be a protective factor. In “Creating a Curriculum to Help Girls Battle Eating Disorders” by Sally Giedrys, Catherine Steiner-Adair, director of education and prevention at the Harvard Eating Disorder Center, states, “Teaching about eating disorders can often backfire because it actually can spread the behaviors.” In the past, girls would exchange information about vomiting techniques in the school bathroom or at a sleepover; now they can find each other on the Internet anytime.
Websites surface under many names geared to girls who refer to themselves as “Anas,” shorthand for anorexics. These sites include photographs of emaciated women that can entice a wavering anorexic back into a destructive eating pattern. Anorexics who would never have communicated with each other before can now find a community of like minds on the Internet. The following two excerpts posted on a website are reported by Joan Ryan in her San Francisco Chronicle article, “Overestimating the Fidget Factor”: “I refuse to give in to the pathetic whimpers my body makes. I refuse to accept its supposed limitations. I will cross every line it tries to draw. . . . I refuse to let the screams of hunger throw me off ” and “Guys, I’m really having a weak moment; I haven’t eaten anything at all today, but right now I really, really, REALLY want to. I don’t want to give in to the craving, tell me what I should do to forget about it.”
Anorexics view eating as weak and are proud of their willpower and control because they are able to endure starvation. The danger in this “outlaw” community is that the aberrant behavior gets reinforced. The support girls give to each other helps them to deny that starvation is dangerous, a denial that ultimately can kill them. Knowledge about the prevalence of eating disorders does not protect our daughters. However, by reducing their perception of the importance of physical appearance, we can mitigate the pressure on them to be excessively thin. We can give our daughters the tools they need to become capable and confident in managing the stress of growing up in our culture of thin. We also need to encourage our girls to exert control over their daily lives in ways other than through food.
Unlike with other issues, mothers and daughters are in this fight together. As one mother of a 17-year-old girl said, “I have been losing and gaining the same 10 pounds since I was 15 years old. Will I ever relax and just accept the size my body really wants to be?” Another mother said, “When I went to a dinner party with a new family I couldn’t stop looking at their 14-year-old daughter. Her face was so beautiful, but she was about 20 pounds overweight. I felt bad for her because her mother was so thin and small. I’m so obsessed with my own body size that I find myself ruminating over anybody else’s weight.” If we express this obsession about weight, our girls will follow our model.
The good news is that some girls and their families can fight back. Seventeen-year-old Robyn said, “My parents always made me feel beautiful. They loved the way I looked. I’m certainly not thin, but I’m not going to allow 10 or 15 pounds [to] stop me from feeling good about myself. I row crew for my high school, and in the boat, my strength and size really matter. Being on the crew team helps me believe that I am much more than my body shape, and if other people have a problem with it, it is their problem, not mine. Look at Queen Latifah; she is definitely a large woman and she sure struts her stuff.”
As reported by Ginia Bellafante in “Young and Chubby,” Dr. Andrea Marks, a specialist in adolescent medicine, states, “Girls are
hearing more messages to take pride in normal body shapes.” Several new businesses; a national chain of clothing stores, called Torrid; and Internet companies, such as Alight.com, are targeting the market of teenage girls who want to dress in “hot” clothes like their thinner peers, but in sizes that fit their bodies. Sales are brisk: Torrid has 25 new stores planned for the future, and Alight.com posted a 42 percent increase in sales. These girls don’t aspire to be thin, they just want to look cool, according to Bellafante.