The Development of Eating Disorders and the Media

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From a very early age, children are taught by society that their looks matter. Think of the four year old little girl who is constantly praised for being “so cute” or the mother who tells her teenage daughter to “be sure to dress nicely and wear make up because you never know who you will run into”. With an ever increasing number of children and adolescents who spend countless hours in front of the TV, or on Facebook or Instagram, more of them are developing a superficial sense of who they are or who they think they should be.

Images on TV spend an obscene amount of time telling us to lose weight and be thin and beautiful. TV series and movies rarely depict men and women with “average” body-types, ingraining in the back of all our minds that this is the type of life we want. Overweight characters are typically portrayed as lazy, the one with no friends, or “the bad guy”, while thin women and muscular men are the successful, popular, sexy and powerful ones. How can we tell the growing children or teenagers in our lives that it’s what’s inside that counts, when the media continuously contradicts this message?

Supermodels in all the popular magazines have continued to get thinner and thinner. The average woman model weighs up to 25% less than the typical woman and maintains a weight at about 15 to 20 percent below what is considered healthy for her age and height. These body types and images are not the norm and are unobtainable to the average individual. We need to constantly remind ourselves and each other (especially children) that these images are fake.

Social media is another trigger for the development of eating disorders. I am so thankful that social media wasn’t nearly as prevalent when I was a teenager. It’s hard enough being a teenager without the added pressure of documenting how you look everyday via the dreaded “selfie” that kids today seem to love so much. With unattainable trends like the “thigh gap”, the pressure to look a certain way is just getting worse and worse. I’ve sadly heard a teenager say that “I don’t know what it’s like to be in high school without a thigh gap”. The thigh gap is pretty self-explanatory. The goal is to become so skinny that your thighs don’t touch when you are standing with your feet together. Hard to attain physical attributes like the thigh gap- combined with social media and an emphasis on women being thinner and thinner – are all aspects that are encouraging eating disorders in young women.

What can Adults and Parents Do about Threats to a Healthy Body Image?

Learn how to talk to your child about healthy body image. KidsHealth.com has some great online resources to help understand and begin conversations about body image. In addition, The National Eating Disorders Association has a great list of 50 things you can do to fight dieting and the drive for thinness.

One obvious challenge with teaching children about healthy body image, however, is a need to have one of our own. If a parent or family member has a history of body image issues or weight concerns, it may be valuable to seek professional advice on how to share these concepts with your children responsibly.

Know the signs of a child with an early eating disorder. Some children struggling with body image problems spiral into a true medical disorder with long term consequences to their mental and physical health. As an observant parent or adult in a child’s life, be aware of some concerning behaviors that may indicate the child’s need for help.

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