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Category: Eating Disorders

Does Cinderella’s tiny waist really matter? You bet it does.

This week I am sharing a guest post by my colleague Nina Funnell. Nina is a freelance writer, social commentator and author. This post was originally posted by RendezView.

Nina Funnell

Well this is depressing.

Lily James, who plays Cinderella in the latest Disney remake of the film by the same name, has admitted that she had to go on a liquid-diet in order to fit into the corset she wore for the part, adding that the outfit was so physically constricting that “if you ate food [while wearing the dress] it didn’t really digest properly”, causing her to burp continuously while trying to deliver lines.

Disney has already defended itself against claims that the actress’s waist had been digitally manipulated to appear smaller, stating that “Lily’s waist hasn’t been altered – she’s wearing a corset.”

Yes, indeed. A waist altering corset. A corset worn so tight that not only does it change its owner’s normal physical appearance, it also interferes with the functioning of her internal organs too.

In response to criticisms about the depiction of her character’s tiny waist, Lily James has hit back saying “why do women always get pointed at for their bodies? … I feel like I’ve got to go: ‘I’m sorry I’ve got a small waist’”.

And you know what? Ordinarily I’d be right there with you, Lily. It sucks that women’s bodies get scrutinised and judged so mercilessly by the media and others. And it sucks that actresses of all different shapes and sizes are subjected to such endless criticism about their looks.

But right now people aren’t talking about Lily’s body as it naturally exists. They are talking about what’s been done to her body. By Disney. By the wardrobe department on the film. By the dress itself. And what’s been done sucks the big one.

Because while I agree that we should all take care not to skinny-bash celebrities, it’s not skinny-bashing to point out that an item of clothing which is so restrictive that it stops a woman from digesting food properly is not something we should be parading around in front of small children and holding up as the defining standard of beauty.

This issue hits close to home for me. Over the past couple of years five of my friends have given birth, all to girls. And while it delights me to no end to think that pretty soon we’ll have enough to start our own junior girls soccer team, I also know that what I want for those girls is for them to grow up in a very different world to the one I grew up in.

I want them to grow up feeling strong and happy in their bodies. And I want them to grow up seeing a wide range of female bodies being positively portrayed in the films that they watch.

Because I was six years old when The Little Mermaid came out at the cinemas and I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember catching the 506 bus into town. I remember going to George Street Cinemas in Sydney. And I remember sitting in my seat and staring up the giant screen. And what I saw – and what I yearned for in that moment- was the skinniest waist I had ever seen.

In fact Ariel’s waist had such a profound impact on me that when my brother later teased me that if I ate a big meal, my stomach would look like I swallowed a soccer ball, I had to hold back tears of despair. And I remember everything about that moment too – where I was, the exact words that were used, and how I felt at the time.

And no matter how much we might talk to girls about image manipulation and corsets and photoshop, nothing can ever truly erase the power of an image.

Perhaps the images we should really be showing to girls are those which capture the disfigurement which results from extended use of a corset. (While we’re at it, we could also show them the disfiguring results of foot binding, since the story of Cinderella was originally adapted from a Chinese tale about maiden who slides her foot into a tiny slipper, thus proving she has the smallest foot in the land, and is therefore the most virtuous and kind woman for the Prince to marry.)

And we could also show girls these images of Disney princesses with realistic waists and hair.

But what we shouldn’t be showing them is complacency in the face of Disney unnaturally shrinking down its female stars, through any means, including the old fashioned ones.

 

What to look for when choosing a counsellor or psychologist

The following guest post is shared with permission from the author, the wonderful Matt Glover from MGA Counselling Services. Matt wrote this following a discussion I had with him and two other professionals I admire, Sarah McMahon from BodyMatters and Jacqui Manning, The Friendly Psychologist. Sarah has also put together an excellent resource on how to select a therapist for eating disorders which may be viewed here.

Recently I was having a discussion with Dannielle Miller from Enlighten Education about what to look for when choosing a counsellor or psychologist.  In Australia, we still live in a culture that places some stigma on seeing a mental health professional, and so we are hesitant to ‘ask around’ like we do when looking for a plumber or dentist. If you’re wrestling with a mental health issues, a relationship problem, a personal issue, or just feel plain stuck, make sure you check the following before booking a session with a counsellor or psychologist.

1. Check the qualifications. While Psychology and Social Work are regulated industries, Counselling is not. Anybody can set themselves up as a counsellor and charge a premium without even a single hour of training. Online certificates and diploma’s abound in counselling, but these are little better than nothing at all. Many of them do not require any sort of supervised placement and barely scratch the surface of best practice when it comes to the different models of therapy. For counsellors, I would suggest sticking with those that have a Bachelor degree or above, from a reputable university. When you ring to make a booking, ask where the therapist did their training.

2. Check the accreditation. Make sure the counsellor you see is accredited at more than student level with one of the professional bodies. The professional bodies maintain a code of ethics for the industry and ensure that individual therapists are engaged in ongoing professional development and supervision. As a counsellor, I’m accredited through the Australian Counselling Association, but there are equivalent associations for Psychologists and Social Workers.

3. Check the experience. Regardless of your heart for helping people, it takes a while to become really proficient in the helping industries. I say to aspiring counsellors to try and get work with a larger agency before thinking about  private work or opening your own practice. I worked for 14 years for other organisations before opening MGA. When you ring a therapist, ask them how long they’ve been practicing. If they say “two weeks”, wish them well for their career, hang up, and call the next person on your list.

4. Check the specialty. Most of us have a field that we specialize in, based on our own interests and history. In my practice, we focus on sexuality, spirituality, and mental health, with individual therapists at MGA having more focused areas like relationships, eating disorders and the like. If you’re after some help with depression, for instance, make sure your therapist has experience working in that area. Associated with this point is the model of therapy. There’s lots of different ‘therapies’ – some will suit you and others won’t. CBT has been popular in the past but seems to be going out of fashion in recent years. Gestalt is still popular, as is person centered therapy. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is the model we use at MGA, but each client is treated according to their needs, not pushed through a conveyor belt.

5. Check the “fit.” If you find you don’t really click with your therapist, find somebody else. I don’t have any research to back this up at all, but my feeling is that at least 50% of a good outcome in counselling depends on how well you get along with your counsellor. If you have a counsellor that is rude, irritating, talks about themselves all the time, seems uninterested, hurries you along, doesn’t listen or even smells funny, then you won’t get the most out of your time together. You may even miss some important, helpful suggestions because you really just don’t like them very much. Sometimes a good outcome does take time, but you want to take that journey with somebody who you connect with well.

6. Check the reputation. This is a little harder to do, but ask around to see what sort of reputation a therapist has. Personal recommendations are not a rock solid guarantee (you have to get along well with them remember) but it’s nice to know that there is some good reports about the person you are seeing.

7. Check the responsibility. By this I mean, check that you have responsibility for where the sessions go and what it is you cover. I do a lot of work with the transgender community and I’ve lost count how many times clients say to me that their previous counsellor talked about nothing but their gender transition, despite the client wanting to see them for an entirely different reason. (Eg, bullying at work) In sessions, make sure you talk about what YOU want to talk about. As things unfold, you may uncover other things that you need to work on – a skilled therapist will help you do this. But if your counsellor insists on making you talk about things that seem irrelevant and they won’t give you a reason why, think about whether you should continue with them.

8. Check the practical stuff. Ask how long the sessions are, what the fees are, whether it has disability access, whether it is close to public transport, is there parking available, what are the opening hours and so on. Whatever practical things are important to you, ask about them. Also check to see if your therapist has any long holidays planned – sometimes a break in momentum can set you back, so if they’re going to be away for six months, ask for somebody else.

The lovely Jacqui and I on the set of channel 9's Mornings show.
The lovely Jacqui and I on the set of channel 9’s Mornings show.

Jacqui offered a few final thoughts in addition to these I thought worth sharing here too: “Also, I’d say that if the work feels confronting, that’s OK, therapy is meant to make shifts and sometimes these can feel uncomfortable but it shouldn’t stay that way for long. The therapist should be skilled at going at your pace, but if they’re not, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask them to slow down. And if you don’t click with one therapist? Don’t give up on the process. It’s like finding a good hairdresser, it can take time to find the right person to trust, but you don’t stop getting your hair done if you have had one bad haircut.”

Debate around skinny models at Fashion Week rages – again

I had the opportunity to discuss this issue on ABC Radio, Gold Coast, with Nicole Dyer. The following is from the ABC web site. The audio may be listened to below too. Love to read your thoughts!

Designer Alex Perry has apologised after sending 21 year old model, Cassi Van Den Dungen, down the runway at Australian Fashion Week, looking extremely thin. But it has renewed debate about the health of models in the industry, and the example being set for young women. Nicole spoke to Dannielle Miller, an educator, and an author of books like ‘The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: A girl’s guide to claiming her power’, and also to former model, now author and mum, Chloe Maxwell.

Audio: 

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Targeting Photoshop Fails

US retailer Target recently made the ridiculous choice to (poorly) photoshop an already svelte teen model in order to give her a thigh gap and alien-like limbs.

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On-line news site Mamamia were the first to expose this insanity here in Australia: “What’s disturbing here is not only is someone with inferior retouching skills attacking catalogue images, but that images of teenagers are being slimmed down in the first place.” Amen!

I appreciated the opportunity to discuss this on channel 9’s Mornings program with Mia Freedman:

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Cyber Self-harming

This week I am sharing a guest post by my colleague and friend Nina Funnell which first appeared in The Age. In this Nina attempts to make sense of alarming new findings which suggest teens (girls in particular) are engaging in digital self-harm.

 

In recent weeks, media outlets around the world have reported on the tragic case of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl from Leicestershire, England, who committed suicide, after receiving cruel and harassing messages – including to “drink bleach” and “die” – on the social media site Ask.fm.

Critics of the site have urged parents to keep their children off it, saying that the anonymous question/ answer format leads to harassment, stalking and bullying.

Now the case has taken another tragic turn. In an inquiry into the matter, Ask.fm has uncovered that 98 per cent of the abusive messages sent to Hannah came from the same IP address as her own computer. Only four of the abusive comments came from other IP addresses.

While there are still a lot of unknowns in this case, it has now been reported that the abuse sent to Hannah appears to have come from Hannah herself. Following this latest development, many people online have expressed their utter bewilderment: what could drive a teenager to attack herself and then put it on display? Why would anyone self-sabotage in this way? And are other teenagers doing this?

Last year, researchers at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre found that up to ten per cent of first year university students had “falsely posted a cruel remark against themselves, or cyberbullied themselves, during high school”.

And this is not the first time that online ‘self-harassment’ or ‘self-cyberbullying’ has been identified and written about. In 2010, danah boyd, a leading social media researcher wrote about an emerging trend she had discovered on Formspring, where teens were ‘anonymously’ posting vicious questions to themselves, before publicly answering them.

Similarly, in 2008 I conducted research into the pro-anorexia community – a community set up by individuals with eating disorders. I discovered that it was not uncommon for members on these forums to write letters of worship to their disease referred to as ‘Ana’ or ‘Mia’ (anorexia or bulimia). The same member would then write a reply to themselves as though they were the personified disease. These second letters ‘from’ Ana or Mia would inevitably be full of abuse, insults and vicious put downs.

So what motivates this phenomenon and why have we heard so little about it?

According to boyd, online self-harassment like that observed on Formspring or Ask.fm, may represent a cry for help, a grab for attention, an opportunity to demonstrate toughness and resilience, or a way of phishing for compliments from friends who jump in to defend against the abuse. Boyd also describes the behavior as a form of ‘digital self-harming’, stressing that teens who are in pain do not always lash out at others: very often they lash out at themselves. And occasionally they invite an audience to watch on.

For the ‘digital self-harmer’ the presence of an audience appears to serve other purposes too. Anonymously calling oneself a “loser” online allows them to test out other people’s attitudes: do other people see me this way too? Is my perception of myself shared universally?

Secondly, by inflicting harm on themselves before an audience, it makes their pain visible and therefore more ‘real’. Finally, by giving others the impression that they are ‘under attack’, the afflicted individual is able communicate to others exactly what they are feeling: overwhelmed and under siege. And they can achieve this without ever having to risk saying the words: “I’m in pain, I need your help”.

What this means is that while the abusive comments might be manufactured the feelings they speak to are very much real.

Looking back at my own high school years, it is clear that aspects of this behavior are nothing new. Teens have always had a propensity to document their negative self-talk and self-loathing in one form or another, often in journals, angst ridden poetry and other forms of art. Sometimes teens keep these things deeply private out of secrecy and shame. At other times, they deliberately share and show these things to friends, as if to say “see my pain. See me.”

For all of us, pain is not simply something we feel, it is something we ‘perform’, often with the purpose of eliciting certain responses from others. For teenagers especially, these performances can become avenues through which they bond, ask for empathy or sympathy, and experience a sense of connectedness – something which most teenagers crave desperately. While this strategy might serve a need, it is also deeply dysfunctional.

Today this impulse is moving online. In recent months I have had two conversations with different mothers after they discovered that their children’s friends were self-harming, then posting photographs of their injuries online for their peers to comment on. Perhaps most disturbing of all was that one of the children shrugged it off as “nothing new”.

Experts are right to worry that by normalising or even glamorising self-harming behaviors, such overt displays might produce a contagion effect. This is why it’s considered dangerous to even mention the issue in schools.

Despite this, it’s important that researchers continue to look at why young people are externalising their self-hatred in this way and what can be done to help them. Moreover we must remember that sometimes the cruelest things a teen will ever hear are the comments they say to themselves.

For related posts read: Girls in crises – self harm and what you can do about it.

Rage and despair – positive, helpful ways to support girls in crises 

Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards
Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards

Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010. Nina and I also recently co-wrote a book for young women on navigating dating and relationships; this will be published by Harper Collins in February, 2014.

Things that make me go Grrrrr…

1. Fat shaming.

I have voiced my concerns over channel 10’s “Biggest Loser” in the Sydney Morning Herald before here: The burden of treating girls’ bodies as the enemy and here in a piece co-written with Nina Funnell:Biggest losers from TV obesity cures are gullible viewers.

Sadly, based on an examination of the show’s 2013 season promos, the fat-shaming formula has not changed:


One of my Facebook friends, women’s advocate and activist Melinda Liszewski, nailed it in her post on why she finds this program so very disturbing and harmful:

Do you know what’s worse than eating an entire tub of ice cream? Humiliating a girl on national television and across the internet under the guise of “health.”

Here are just a few comments that this latest post from the Biggest Loser has attracted:

Marc Gliosca says: “This girl is a vile pig.”

Fulvio Cammaroto says: “If people were not negative with their comments on this kind of eating behaviour then the world would be full of fat cunts like this. Sounds cruel I know.. But it’s the truth…. (Lisa Fawcett “likes” that comment)

Sam Voulalis says: FATMOTHERF#@CKER!

This is the language of the Biggest Loser. It’s not health and it’s not ok.

2. Women reduced to their body parts.

In what may well be one of the most ridiculous news report on International Women’s Day ever, Fox News Connecticut decided that women’s achievements were best represented by highlighting breasts. And more breasts. And even more breasts. You can almost see the newsreader cringe.

3. This is why we need Feminism

And of course then there are the issues that always spur me on to work towards equality – not just here, but overseas.

What has frustrated you this week?

 

Real Girls

I am always incredibly honoured when I receive correspondence from women who want to meet with me to discuss more about my work, and their vision for girls.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to meet everyone who requests a catch-up; not if I actually want to get on with driving my own vision for girls and supporting my own amazing Enlighten Team. But, every now and then, an email screams out at me as being written by someone truly special.

Samantha Power originally emailed me as she has just finished teaching Drama at the Australian International School In Singapore, a school Enlighten had a particularly powerful experience working in last year (this event will always remain one of the highlights of what has been a very blessed career; I am thrilled we will be returning in 2013):

…As a young, fresh teacher I am extremely passionate about what it is you’re doing with Enlighten Education…I have received many emails from some of my ex students telling me what an amazing and powerful experience your workshop was. Thank You from the bottom of my heart for empowering them and giving them the confidence they need to believe in themselves in a more positive and affirming way.

Since hearing from them I have read your book The Butterfly Effect and in doing so have also been propelled to make a difference. My love for teaching came about from a love of teenagers and a strong need to ‘help’ them. Help not in the sense of saving them but, like you, in allowing them to look at their lives in a different way and to realise that they are so much more than what they themselves may even realise. I aim to use my platform as a teacher to try and make them realise their potential, encourage them to be compassionate and caring towards others and to always strive for their dreams…

Samantha went on to explain she had moved to Texas but would be back in Australia in a few months time to visit her family. If she paid for an airfare to Sydney to meet me, could I find the time to meet with her she asked?

Sam and I at Enlighten HQ.

How could I say no to this level of enthusiasm for our girls? Suffice to say that after we met, I was so taken with Samantha that I offered her the role as our Program Manager for the USA and, after staying with me and travelling all over Australia as part of her Enlighten training, she has been establishing our programs there ever since (trust me, if you ever meet Sam, you’ll want to adopt her too. I only hope she never uses her powers for evil, or we are all in trouble).

But, bringing our brand of girl-power to the USA is not all that she has been up to. Completely unprompted by me, Sam decided to set up her own Facebook Page and blog aimed at teen girls – Real Girls. These sites are inspiring, empowering and much-needed on-line platforms for real girls to share their personal stories and learn from each other.

So, this week, I am handing over to 16 year old “Real Girl” contributor Zoe. Zoe is a 16 year old girl living in Melbourne, Australia. Here she candidly and bravely talks about her body issues and her goals for the future.

You may read more “Real Girl” stories at Sam’s site . Do check it out and share it with the girls in your life.

Trigger warning: Please do not read on if you are prone to be triggered around eating and health or body-related themes.

 

I’m a 16 year-old girl from Melbourne who has been lucky enough to live overseas and see various parts of the world. My life, however, over the last couple of years has been filled with ups and downs. I am thankful in a way though as it has made me a much stronger person and taught me to appreciate and make the most of every opportunity. I’m a naturally energetic, hyperactive person who is a strong believer in the law of attraction – what you put out into the universe is what you get back! Therefore, I try to put out as much positive energy as I can. I don’t do things by halves, its 200% or nothing.

Zoe, 16.

For me, hindsight is an interesting thing. I don’t live with regrets but if I could, I would prevent my 12-year-old self from feeling the need to starve herself to get to a weight that was way below the healthy weight range. For anyone out there who has had or currently has an eating disorder and faces the challenge of being in the “Zone” then you will know what I am talking about – Experiencing that voice inside your head that takes over any reason, obsessing over calories, weight, how many bones are showing, how many calories to burn and how to eat the least amount at the next meal.

Four years of yoyo dieting, excessive exercising and mentally stressful events caught up with me this year and although I had maintained a relatively healthy weight for the last two years my outlook towards my body has been constantly up and down. I would only feel confident or like my body when I was exercising a lot. If I wasn’t I would feel the need to not eat. I also would over analyze every part of my body, and focus on everything I hated about it and where I wanted to be thinner, constantly comparing myself to other girls around me.

My exercise regime had been given a massive boost towards the end of last year and the beginning of this year due to cross country season. I began exercising for 11+ hours week and pushing myself more than I needed to. I found I began to tie my confidence and self-esteem with how much I exercised – the more I did the better I felt about myself. I justified this in my mind and thought it wasn’t the same as my eating disorder – I was happy, getting good marks at school, at a healthy weight and my family life was stable. I used all these excuses to make what I was doing ok – even though I still had the voice in my head telling me I needed to do the extra exercise class, run an extra hour, burn another 100 calories.

I knew that my body could only handle so much but still I ignored the warning signs of over training and pushed through. In May this year however, the “crash of exhaustion” finally came. I experienced a whole month of heart palpitations, constant elevated heart rate, unable to think clearly, insomnia, Increased PMS symptoms, periods of exhaustion and days where I was unable to get out of bed.

Blood tests showed that I had sub clinical hypothyroidism*. One of the most noticeable symptoms associated with hypothyroidism is unexplained weight gain. I was suddenly faced with weight gain of 7 kilograms in one week.

I was told by my doctors to come back in six weeks to get another blood test to see if my levels returned to normal. I felt extremely trapped and hated not being able to do anything to help myself. I had done some research and had found there was a lot of information linking hypothyroidism and Adrenal Fatigue*, which I discovered is surprisingly common and even more risky than chronic fatigue.

I had gained weight and had lost most of the fitness I gained over the last few months. I felt very lost as I associated my whole personality and lifestyle around exercising. I suddenly had two choices: I could continue the way I was going or I could learn from this experience. In a sense there and then I had to confront my eating disorder face on and promised myself I would work at being the healthiest version of myself.

This required a lot of self-control, and there were slip-ups. There were days where I would just go back to my normal routine but I was at the point where if I stressed my body out too much, I would find myself bedridden the next day. This really taught me that there is a consequence for everything you do. In those months I came to realise that my weight was just a number – nothing more! It didn’t change who I was as a person. I still had amazing friends and family, and a supportive school, and they all were there to help and make sure I didn’t too much.

What have I learnt from all of this? I have learnt how important it is to have a balanced lifestyle. Our body’s sole purpose in life is to function. It cannot withstand large amounts of stress, bad eating habits and being surrounded by negative environments. We need to respect our body and treat it in a way that allows us to live to our full potential

It’s taken me six months to get back to normal energy levels and only in the last two weeks have I finally felt back to my normal self. I’ve learnt to appreciate every single opportunity that is thrown at me and realise now how lucky I am: I go to an amazing school with unlimited opportunities, have a great group of friends both in school and out, have a positive family life and an inspiring mentor and coach.

My goal from now on is not let excessive exercising control my life and to see food as fuel, and something my body needs. My goal for the future is to help as many people as possible to live a balanced lifestyle by exercising in a functional way and eating in a way that makes them feel good and excited about life. I have recently completed my Certificate III in Fitness and aspire to have a career in the fitness industry as an Exercise Physiologist/Personal Trainer.

I hope to use my personal story to help others make better choices for themselves and to know that their body and their outer appearance does not define them as a person. It is more important that you are healthy and that you can live in a way that allows you to be the best version of yourself you can be!

Hypothyroidism*: Hypothyroidism (under active thyroid) is a condition in which your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of certain important hormones. Source: MayoClinic.com

Adrenal Fatigue*: Adrenal fatigue is a collection of signs and symptoms known as a syndrome and occurs when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level. It is most commonly associated with intense or prolonged stress, but can also arise during or after acute or chronic infections, especially respiratory infections such as influenza, bronchitis or pneumonia. 

“But what about the boys?”

Frequently when I speak at conferences I am asked what our company, Enlighten Education, is doing to support young men. My response? Whilst we recognise boys also need positive, proactive programs to help them make sense of the changing world around them, we have decided to specialise in working with young women. That is not to say, of course, that many of the resources we offer (especially via this blog) would not help inform raising amazing boys. In fact, as I mentioned in my previous post, I have been asked to deliver my workshop on supporting teens to nurture respectful relationships with their peers, and navigate cyber world safely and responsibly, to the young men at Cranbrook School next week.

But it may surprise many of my readers to learn that aside from the issues we traditionally associate with young males (e.g: violence, substance abuse, reckless driving, and poor school performance) boys are also struggling with issues we tend to more readily associate with young women too. Especially body image.

In fact, a recent Australian Institute of Family Studies Growing Up in Australia survey, based on an assessment of 4164 children, indicated that boys are more likely than girls to diet and exercise to lose weight.

And boys also suffer from more extreme forms of body image dissatisfaction. The Centre of Excellence in Eating Disorders reports that one in ten young adults and approximately 25% of children diagnosed with anorexia nervosa are male. In this clip, Psychologist and muscle dysmorphia expert Dr Stuart Murray discusses the features of muscle dysmorphia; a newly identified psychological condition which is more common in males than females:

Jane Higgins, Enlighten’s Program Manager for South Australia, independently established her own in-school program for young men; The Odyssey Program. Odyssey’s workshops cover a variety of topics from masculinity to mate-ship, drugs and alcohol, girls and relationships, anger management and, yes, body image.

Jane offered me this insight into why her proactive work on body image with boys has become increasingly important:

“Just as the media rarely offers diverse images of what beauty in a young woman may look like,  it also presents a very narrow and one dimensional view of what a man should look, feel and be like and boys are responding to this pressure in unhealthy ways. The push for boys to appear muscular and buff is particularly problematic.  “Ripped, Shredded, Cut, Buff, Chiseled, Muscle up, Bulk Up, 6 pack Abs, Brutal, Clean!!” The way they are marketed to would almost have one think you were discussing a machine!

If a boy wishes to conform to this ideal, then he only has to turn to the “Health” food shops where he can buy “Bulking Up” drinks and powders. They contain ingredients that include electrolytes, amino acids, arginine, glutamine, caffeine and some contain nitric oxide and 1,3-Dimethylamylamine, or DMAA. It is like a glass of stimulants. Even more concerning is the research that shows that 3-12% of teen boys will use even more extreme muscle enhancing drugs including steroids.”

For more discussion on body image dissatisfaction in young men you may wish to read the following excellent articles:

Boys aren’t immune to body image pressures and never have been

The man behind the mask – male  body image dissatisfaction

Body image boosters for guys 

Regardless of gender, all young people deserve to be recognised as somebodies, not just bodies.

Diet Crazy Mums

As a follow on from a number of posts I’ve featured on dieting and body image*, I thought I’d share this recent segment I did on channel 9’s Mornings Show; I am one of the program’s resident parenting experts and their body image spokesperson.

Whilst it would be easy to dismiss the new reality television series we discuss here, “Diet Cray Mums”, as merely extremist nonsense, in reality I think it illuminates many beliefs and behaviours that have become mainstream. An irrational fear of fat and the willingness to do anything to “save” one’s child from being larger. The belief that if we fit a narrow ideal of beauty we will be loved, happy and successful. An obsession with monitoring weight, rather than a focus on health…

Take a look and let me know what you think. Are many of us guilty of being “diet crazy” too?

If you continue watching my Youtube channel after the “Diet Crazy Mums” segment finishes, more vision of my Mornings Interviews will play. In fact, it is immediately followed by a related debate with fitness expert Amelia Burton on the suggestion we should be weighing primary school aged children in our schools.

* More posts on dieting and body image that have been featured on this blog include:

Unpacking the diet industry’s false promises

The toxic message in Facebook teen health and fitness sites 

Generation Cleanskin (a three part series that starts here)

Body image and self-esteem programs: What really works? 

The weight-loss industry has no place in our schools

Unpacking the diet industry’s false promises

This week’s guest post is by Lydia Jade Turner. Ms Turner is a psychotherapist and the Managing Director of BodyMatters Australasia. In this research article she explores the connections between body image, weight, the media, and food-related industries. The Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia (AGSA) invited Ms Turner to write this piece and it appears in the current edition of their journal, In Alliance. Full references were provided and may be obtained by contacting Ms Turner and / or referring to her original submission for AGSA.

Australia is currently facing a public health crisis. On one hand, approximately one-quarter of school-aged children are reported to be ‘overweight’ or ‘obese.’ On the other, the National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC) reports eating disorders have increased two-fold over the past five years. Working out how to foster resiliency against both extremes may feel daunting for many. While some are taught to put their children on diets, others are watching their daughter refuse to eat. Despite all the anti-obesity rhetoric and warnings about eating disorders, many are getting sicker. This paper argues for a paradigm shift away from a weight based approach to health, and makes the case for tighter regulation of the industries contributing to eating and dieting disorders in young people.

The effects of dieting and weight loss

Popular shows like The Biggest Loser suggest shaming and stigmatising ‘obese’ individuals inspires health-giving behaviours. It is troubling that many adolescents and children are exposed to such programmes, as ‘weight-based stigma’ was recently identified as a shared risk factor for both ‘obesity’ and eating disorders, in a research summary prepared by the NEDC. While such shows encourage dieting for weight loss, a landmark study by Dr Dianne Neumark-Sztainer demonstrated that adolescent girls who engage in weight-control behaviours are significantly more likely to gain weight and be heavier than their non-dieting peers five years later.

A consistent finding was demonstrated in a study published in the 2003 Journal of Paediatrics, which explored the relationship between dieting and weight change amongst ‘tweens’ and adolescents. Tracking 15,000 participants, the research found those put on diets were significantly more likely to gain weight than those who were not. Paradoxically, dieting for weight loss appears to increase the likelihood of becoming ‘obese.’ It is theorized this is due to our bodies adapting to famine periods over hundreds of thousands of years. It has only been a relatively short period of time that we have existed in a cultural mixing pot with the convenience of high calorific, nutritionally devoid foods and often sedentary lifestyles.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found the appetite stimulating hormone ghrelin actually increased by approximately twenty percent even one year after participants were put on a weight-loss diet. Leptin, which helps to suppress hunger and raise metabolic rate, was found at lower levels than expected. The appetite suppressing hormone peptide YY was also found at unusually low levels. It is not yet known how long these changes remain. The Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) which controls the amount of energy expended for the body’s basic survival functions also reduces. In essence, for many, the body works against the efforts to lose weight.

Those who engage in repeated cycles of dieting are significantly more likely to suffer from binge eating, as binge eating is the body’s survival response to deprivation. It overrides a person’s desire to restrict their intake to an uncomfortable level. Anorexia however presents an exception to this response, with emerging research showing it may be a brain disorder exacerbated by starvation, rather than a matter of unshakable willpower. For reasons not fully understood, the patient’s physiology does not ‘kick in’ to protect them from their desire to starve.

Perhaps this explains why nearly fifty years of research have demonstrated that weight loss approaches fail approximately 95% of the population over the long term. While many can lose weight in the short term, research has yet to show a dieting approach that works for most over two to five years. In fact one in five obese Australians is now reported to have eating disorder symptoms, despite appearing to have ample fat stores.

The US National Weight Control Registry provides some interesting insights into the lives of those who have maintained weight loss over the long term. The registry has enrolled over 6000 participants who have maintained an average weight loss of 15 kilograms for at least one year, and is often heralded as ‘evidence’ that weight loss maintenance is achievable for most. Yet a critique of the registry by Ikeda and her team of researchers as far back as 2005 found participants had to restructure their entire lives around food and weight, with many resorting to extreme measures to maintain their lost weight.

It’s clear dieting for weight loss carries many unintended consequences. Some would argue that the solutions prescribed to combat ‘obesity’ are the same behaviours eating disorders clinicians are diagnosing in their patients. The focus needs to shift onto disordered eating which damages the health of people at any size.

The unintended consequences of dieting include: food and body preoccupation, weight cycling, distraction from other health goals, reduced self-esteem, eating disorders, weight stigmatisation and discrimination. Dieting has also been identified as the biggest predictor of an eating disorder, while weight cycling has been shown to be more harmful to health than maintaining a higher but steady weight. For these reasons and more, focusing on weight loss as a goal is not recommended.

Weight stigmatisation

Weight-based stigma occurs when size is the primary focus instead of health. It is linked to a reluctance to engage in physical activity, which perhaps is not so surprising when one considers that exercise typically takes place in a public space. Weight stigmatisation is particularly harmful for young people, for example one study found obese children to be 63% more likely to be bullied, regardless of socioeconomic factors, race, gender, or what type of school they attended. Bullies often engage in bullying behaviour not because their target is fat or has big ears, but because it makes them feel comparatively powerful.

Instead of putting a child on a diet, the following factors are protective against an unhealthy lifestyle and eating disorders: fostering a positive body image, helping students find physical activities that they enjoy, modelling healthy behaviours, having students eat breakfast everyday, participating in regular and family meals, as well as fostering high self-esteem.

Anti-obesity messages

Anti-obesity messages are especially harmful to children. Public health messages must honour the principle of ‘first, do no harm.’ In a key research document by Professor Jennifer O’Dea, it was identified that “health education for child obesity prevention may result in the iatrogenesis of inappropriate weight control techniques whereby the health education program generates unplanned, undesirable and health damaging effects such as starvation, vomiting, laxative abuse, diuretic and slimming pill usage, and cigarette smoking to suppress appetite and as a substitute for eating”. Children and adolescents are also more susceptible to distorting anti-obesity messages, for example, by thinking that if low-fat milk is a good option, then no-fat milk must be even better.

Given the high failure rate and unintended consequences that accompany weight loss goals, a global shift away from a weight-based approach to health is currently being explored. The health-centred paradigm, also known as Health At Every Size®, acknowledges that health-giving behaviours have been shown to mitigate many of the diseases typically associated with obesity. Its key principles include finding pleasurable physical activity, engaging in intuitive eating, and viewing health as a multi-dimensional, ongoing process including physical, intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, and occupational aspects. We can feel good about ourselves for engaging in health-giving behaviours, instead of focussing on a certain number on the scales.

Negative media and industry practices

It is sometimes argued that parents are ultimately responsible for their child’s development of a healthy body image. While parents have some responsibility and can increase risk or resiliency, it is also the case that exposure to media images overwhelmingly contributes to increased risk of body dissatisfaction, which in turn is linked to eating and dieting disorders. A meta-analysis of seventy-seven carefully selected studies involving 15,000 participants showed that media images have more impact today on young people than they did in the nineties. Despite all the body image initiatives, ultimately media has greater impact.

In an attempt to regulate the industries contributing to poor body image, Australia’s 2009 government initiatives saw the National Advisory Board for Body Image introduce a voluntary code of conduct. Unfortunately this led to minimal change. It’s clear our current approaches to reducing harmful messages in our community are failing.

In contrast to Australia other countries have explored the possibility of legislative changes. For example in Spain there have been attempts to ban ‘cult of the body’ advertisements, which target dieting and plastic surgery products, before 10pm each night. France’s lower house of Parliament adopted a law in 2008, making it illegal for anyone, including magazines and advertisers, to incite ‘extreme thinness’. Just a few months ago, the Israeli government passed a law banning the use of underweight models in advertising and on the catwalk. It’s time Australia adopts a less compromising stance towards media images and the beauty industries.

It’s not only the beauty industries that need to face tighter regulation. The food industry should also adopt more ethical marketing practices. Specific industry practices need to change, such as supplying toys with Happy Meals, advertising ‘fun’ foods during children’s television timeslots, and encouraging eating past fullness. Ultimately a shift in health paradigms and a fresh approach towards the relevant industries will be necessary if we want to see a healthier future for Australian girls.

 

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