Department of English

Fall 2011 Edition

Thin Is In, or Is It?

Amber Overson
Argumentative 1010 2nd Place
Professor: Toa Tawa

Puking every day after every meal, or not eating at all; sounds good doesn’t it? This is the most common way for female teens to be thin and sexy like the celebrities they see on television. I see celebrities on television that are thin and beautiful, and during commercial breaks there are advertisements for Oreo’s™, Coca Cola™, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups™, and to complicate things there is a miracle weight loss cure endorsed by the celebrities I am watching. This is such a mixed message. What I understand from viewing all of this is that I can eat whatever I want, take their miracle weight loss cure, and look like these beautiful celebrities, right? Wrong! The image that the media and celebrities portray, “the ideal,” is not one that is healthy. Yet, as a society we submit to this; it affects both our young and adolescent females: this “ideal” has lifelong and sometimes deadly consequences.

It is important to understand that there is a connection between obesity and eating disorders. Obesity is an eating disorder of over-consumption. Some young women are overweight. As a result of being overweight, they become depressed because they do not fit the image of the “ideal.” Their depression may lead them into other eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. Research shows obesity in girls under the age of twelve is caused by lack of physical activity. In the article “Associations between Body Satisfaction and Physical Activity in Adolescents: Implications for Programs Aimed at Preventing a Broad Spectrum of Weight-Related Disorders,” author John Collins state “. . . an improvement in body satisfaction is important since youth who do not feel good about their bodies are unlikely to engage in physical activity” (127). This article included a study examining the “associations among body satisfaction and physical and sedentary activities” (125). The results were that “…46 percent of girls showed trends of lower body satisfaction, they spent 8.5 hours per week in physical activity, only 56 percent were engaged in team sports, and 17.9 hours per week were spent watching TV” (130). I concur with this study; younger girls need to get more physical activity, and spend less time sitting in front of the TV.

Isn’t it interesting that the very thing that influences girls to suffeer from lower body satisfaction is the same thing that in excess causes them to be overweight in the first place? As a former fat kid (FFK as I call it) I was not as physically active as I should have been, and I didn’t want to be active in front of other people because I was overweight; it was a double-edged sword.

My experience exemplifies what researchers have found: the internalization of the images presented on television is the next step in the risk for having an eating disorder. I wanted to be skinny more than anything; the images of the ideal were so deeply internalized in me that as a result I became bulimic at age fifteen. I struggled with my weight up to this point, and I thought that bulimia was the answer. I was overweight, and definitely not the ideal; this caused me to have a negative body image. This, in conjunction with internalizing the thin-ideal, was disastrous. Harrison and Hefner discuss media and thin-ideal internalization in their article “Media Exposure, Current and Future body Ideals, and Disordered Eating among Preadolescent Girls; A Longitudinal Panel Study”:

Internalization of the thin body ideal has long been implicated as a critical risk factor in the development of disordered eating. Thin-ideal internalization refers to the extent to which an individual cognitively accepts the thin societal standard of attractiveness as her own personal standard and engages in behaviors designed to help herself meet that standard. The implied theoretical process is straightforward: extreme dieting and exercise aimed at weight loss are done in the service of an internalized thin body ideal that was learned via exposure to social sources espousing that ideal, one of which is the collection of mass media depictions of thinness as the epitome of female attractiveness. (153)

I agree whole-heartedly with a statement made by Gutierrez-Maldonado et al. “Body-image disturbances have been frequently and strongly associated with the development and maintenance of eating disorders” (521). Tiggemann and Hargreaves suggest that: There are two key sources of empirical evidence that suggests the media do negatively influence body image for many individuals; first, correlation research demonstrates that greater media consumption is related to higher body dissatisfaction, particularly the consumption of media high in appearance content, such as fashion magazines, television soap operas and music videos. Second, experimental studies demonstrate that brief exposure to ‘unrealistic’ beauty images as presented in fashion magazines can increase negative mood and state body dissatisfaction. (466)

This was true in my case; as an overweight child I spent many hours in front of the TV. The programs I watched most showed images of women that looked the way I wanted to, and none of them were overweight. I wanted to be like them because they were socially accepted and I wasn’t. The TV programs that I watched and the magazines I viewed all showed these ‘unrealistic’ expectations. I believed that these women were naturally this way; I didn’t understand that many of them had eating disorders. The article continued “Tiggemann (2002) suggests that ongoing exposure to naturally-occurring idealized media images serves to continually maintain and reinforce levels of insecurity and concern about appearance, shape, and weight” (466). As a teenager, the topic of discussion with my friends always seemed to have a connection with the way we looked. I often heard them say, or said myself, “Does my butt look fat in these jeans?” or “I can’t believe I wear a size 5!” My entire high school life was based around the way I looked and what I thought other people thought of me. After I lost 60 pounds, I went from a size 14 at 165 pounds to a size 1 at 105 pounds. However, I still had a negative body image. I couldn’t tuck my shirt in, because I still felt fat. It didn’t matter if I weighed 165 pounds or 105 pounds; I had a distorted body image.

Research shows that female adolescents make significant errors in the way they view their own body. John Collins confirms this: After studying the effect of a respondent’s body build on body recognition Schonbruch and Schell (1967) concluded that individuals with deviant body builds make significantly more errors in estimating their bodily appearance than persons with normal physiques. They found that both overweight and underweight persons tended to overestimate body size and shape. The concept of body image is extremely complex. In psychiatric terms body image appears to include surface, depth, and postural pictures of the body as well as the attitudes, emotions, and personality reactions of individuals to their bodies. (393)

A control group was also used in this study, comprised of adolescents without a prior history or risk for an eating disorder; the results indicated these “female adolescents are extremely accurate in estimating their body image” (397). As a young adolescent, I believed when I lost weight and became skinny that I would feel the way I perceived the women on television felt. However, over time I realized that being skinny was not the only factor in the way I viewed my body image. My mind is a very powerful tool, and it was the reason that I still had a distorted body image. My mind was not healthy, and until I changed my mindset I would always have a negative self image. When I was younger, I watched a documentary about a woman in her twenties who was suffering from an eating disorder. She drew on a large paper a life-sized image of how she viewed her body. The image she drew was far larger than her small, frail frame. At the time it didn’t make sense why she thought she was bigger than she actually was. Through this study, more insight is given to show why this woman who was suffering from an eating disorder had a distorted image, and therefore did not view her body image the way it truly is. My body image is a lot more realistic than it was when I was bulimic, but there are still situations in which I won’t show my body for example wearing a bathing suit in public.

The environment a woman is in may be a direct impact to her eating disorder. In the article “Body Image in Eating Disorders: The influence of Exposure to Virtual-Reality Environments,” Gutierrez-Maldonado et al emphasize that “Several authors suggest that body image might be more of a state than a trait, and may change according to situational or emotional variables, especially in participants who are concerned about their body shape and/or weight” (521). This particular case study was conducted through virtual-reality (VR) technology. Women with and without eating disorders were evaluated in different VR situations. These situations included being near a swimming pool, and going to a neutral room after the patient had consumed high or low calorie foods. Patients with eating disorders “displayed higher levels of anxiety and depression mood after eating (in both high-and low-calorie-food modes) and after visiting the swimming pool than in the neutral room” (522). The environment I was in during my active bulimic years definitely played a role in my anxiety level. There was a specific time I can think of when I went with my friends to Red Cliffs near St. George, Utah, on an all-day excursion. I distinctly remember not bringing a bathing suit, only a pair of shorts, because I was too afraid to show my 105 pound body. I recently viewed a photo of myself taken that day; I was extremely skinny and boney, and I can’t believe that I was afraid to wear a bathing suit. But this was completely normal for me; my environment was always the biggest factor in what I did or didn’t do in life.

As a junior in high school, I scored in the top 97% on the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) test. I was invited to meet President Clinton at the White House; the cost of the trip was just under $1,000.00. I told my parents I didn’t want to go because of the expense, when in reality I declined this invitation because of my bulimia. I couldn’t fathom being with a group of students from all over the country for an entire week, not knowing when I would be able to purge induced such great anxiety that I didn’t want talk about it. My thoughts were solely focused on my bulimia during this time. I had a bad case of the “what if’s”: what if I couldn’t purge, I would gain weight; what if I gained weight, everyone around me would notice. I felt trapped; what if I lost the image I had gained. What would people think of me? At this point I became very good at avoiding any situation that did not fit my bulimic lifestyle. I wanted to maintain the image I thought I had gained, but in reality I hadn’t gained anything but anxiety and a distorted body image.

This distorted body image is something that we should all be aware of, and take seriously. In the article “Girls Who Starve To Be like TV Waifs”, the London The Daily Mail states “watching stick-thin actresses on U.S. sitcoms seriously distorts girls’ body images and forces them into eating disorders, an alarming new study has found. The study backs up the theories that television waifs such as Calista Flockhart and Jennifer Aniston are to blame for the dramatic increase in eating disorders among young teens” (31). I remember these and other actresses very vividly, and the struggle I had to look like them. The image of Calista Flockhart from the article “The Culture of Thin Bites Fiji” (Goodman 609), was very controversial when I was in high school; it was said that she only weighed around 85 pounds in this particular picture. I knew what was being said about her weight, yet at seventeen years old I wanted to look like her, and so did many other teenage girls. This is definitely evidence of a distorted body image. More recently, one of the Olsen twins was admitted to a treatment center for eating disorders, and still we see our young society subscribing to this way of life. As a society we don’t take seriously the long term affects that eating disorders have on our young daughters. Let’s use some common sense, and stop submitting to this ideal. There are many places around the world where beauty is not determined by the size of a woman’s body.

Ellen Goodman writes “In Fiji before 1995, big was beautiful and bigger was more beautiful— and people really did flatter one another with exclamations about weight gain” (608). In 1995 television was introduced to Fiji; television programs such as Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, Seinfeld and E.R. were viewed by many in Fiji. Goodman continues: Within 38 months, the number of teenagers at risk for eating disorders more than doubled to 29 percent. The number of girls who vomited for weight control went up five times to 15 percent. Worse yet, 74 percent of the Fiji teens in the study said they felt “too big or fat” at least some of the time, and 62 percent said they had dieted in the last month. (608)

This shocking evidence shows the connection between media influence and eating disorders. This is not the only evidence; another article, “TV May Play a Role in Body Image”, shows that eating disorders are connected to media influence: After surveying 303 children age’s six to eight in Midwestern elementary schools, Ms. Harrison concluded that television viewing was a factor among both boys and girls who showed symptoms of eating disorders. She found that children formed opinions about body size from television. For instance, boys who watched a lot of TV tended to form strongly negative views of fat girls, but not of fat boys. Also, girls who were attracted to thin female TV characters were more likely to view their own body as heavier. (Wetzstein A2) Given all of this information, is it really reasonable for the young women of Fiji to look like the young women portrayed in the TV shows they watched? In reality, heredity may hinder young women from achieving this ‘image’of being thin.

The mainstream marketing image is mainly of white females, and not African American, Hispanic, or Pacific Islanders. Caruthers, Merriwether, and Schooler write in their article “Reports estimate that Black women make up 5.6% of primetime television characters, and appear in only 2-3% of mainstream magazine advertisements” (38). Actress Halle Berry and model Tyra Banks are examples of the few black women in the media. Many young women are dissatisfied with the way they look; the article continues “Body dissatisfaction has such a pervasive hold on young women in this country that it has been called a normative discontent. This ideal is unattainable to the vast majority of women, contributing to depression, low self-esteem, and eating disorders” (38). I couldn’t agree more, especially for non-white females. Genetics and other factors contribute to what a woman’s body looks like. Some of these factors are difficult to overcome, even with an eating disorder. Eating disorders just aren’t healthy, period. They take a toll on the body, and there are many side effects that aren’t discussed by the mainstream media, or by celebrities with eating disorders.

There has been a rise in the number of young women with eating disorders, and the media is at the core of this problem. Cherry Norton stated “women on television including news presenters and actresses are ‘abnormally thin’ and are causing a rise in the number of young women suffering from eating disorders, doctors said yesterday, …with every family doctor in the country (UK) treating two patients suffering from anorexia and eighteen with bulimia nervosa” (5). This is a growing epidemic that needs to stop now. I stopped being actively bulimic, but it’s like being an alcoholic; I will struggle with bulimia for the rest of my life. This lifestyle has cost me in many ways, and many ways that I didn’t even realize. Fortunately, I had a life-changing experience, and I never want to go back to being actively bulimic.

During my last pregnancy I was hospitalized and my diagnosis was hyperemesis gravedarium. This is a medical term for extreme morning sickness lasting more than three months. Ninety percent of the women who are diagnosed with hyperemesis gravedarium have or have had an eating disorder. My stomach was tied in knots, and I couldn’t eat or drink normally for six months. I was fed TPN (elemental diet) intravenously for four months. I went to sleep many nights wondering if I would wake up in the morning. My doctor told me that I was the sickest patient he had ever had. I was reaping the consequences of being bulimic, and my baby was at risk of being aborted as a last resort to save my life. After my daughter was delivered, my doctor told my husband and I that there were several times he considered talking to us about aborting her. My heart sank when I heard this. It was at this point that I truly understood the severe consequences of my choice to be bulimic.

Bulimia was a choice I made in high school. Back then I thought I was invincible, but I wasn’t. Bulimia plagued me deeply for several years, until I made the choice to stop. I thought I had control of my bulimia, but in reality bulimia had control of me. Eating disorders aren’t portrayed on television, and you won’t find very many celebrities willing to speak publicly about their eating disorders. There is a very good reason for this; if they did they might be out of a job. Thin may be in, but at what cost? It almost cost my life and my daughter’s life. This is my reality; I live with it every day. Take it from someone who knows, being the “ideal” truly isn’t worth it.