Tuesday, January 02, 2007

More on culture and eating disorders

A new study released by the University of Minnesota shows that teenagers who read lots of magazine articles about dieting are five times as likely to practice "extreme dieting measures"--including fasting and intentional vomiting--than teens who don't.

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, Harvard Med School researcher Alison Field commented, "The articles may be offering advice such as cutting out trans fats and soda, and those are good ideas for everybody. But the underlying messages these articles send are, `You should be concerned about your weight and you should be doing something.'"

This study will come as no surprise to any parent of an eating-disordered child. It describes perfectly the nexus between culture and eating disorders, which is not black and white, either/or. Do magazine articles cause anorexia and bulimia? No, but they clearly, clearly play a role in triggering adolescents who are vulnerable.

And it's not just teen magazines, either. Not long ago on an online forum for parents who are re-feeding their anorexic children, someone started a thread on what triggered each child's descent into anorexia. I was shocked by how many parents mentioned a school health class. And in fact, a 6th-grade "health" class that focused on the dangers of obesity and the virtue of cutting out fats, carbs, and other "bad" foods was the catalyst that led to my own daughter's full-blown anorexia a year and a half later.

As parents, we're used to thinking about all sorts of potentially risky behaviors: drugs, early sexual behavior, alcohol, etc. Now we can add another one to the list.


Unknown said...

I used to find those magazines just silly - now after living with Anorexia in the house I can't bear the thought of them. It was one of the signs of my daughter's recovery when she did a big room clean up and threw them all away.

I don't know whether the interest in those magazines was an early symptom or a trigger - but I no longer find them benign!

Moby Dick said...

Obese kids are a growing epidemic! What happened to responsible parenting? Are people giving their kids the X-box and a bag of donuts instead of quality time?

Harriet said...

The so-called obesity epidemic is largely a product of media hype; see Paul Campos' brilliant book The Obesity Myth if you want your eyes opened on the subject.

In any case, there's a strong genetic component to obesity, just as there is to anorexia and other eating disorders. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, ya know? Like anorexia, extreme obesity represents a disruption of the body's natural ability to self-regulate when it comes to food and eating.

We could prevent obesity the same way we could prevent eating disorders: by promoting, as a culture, a sane, loving, joyful relationship with food. Not punitive dieting or hyped-up media buzz scare tactics. Not good food/bad food. I'm talking eat when you're hungry, stop when you're full, enjoy your food, eat a wide variety of foods, and get plenty of exercise.