As a young person myself, I have experienced, firsthand, the pressures young people face from the media, our peers, and even ourselves as we try to find our identity in a world so focused on the external aesthetic. The emphasis our culture places on being thin leads us to exaggerate the importance of body shape, weight, and dieting. As a gymnast for eight years and a life-long athlete, I have also seen and experienced the pressures of intense sports. Intense athletic competition, criticism from coaches, and the desire to be the best cause both boys and girls to fixate on their weight, diet, and exercise routine; in some cases, this can lead to an eating disorder. The fact of the matter is that our society, in general, knows very little about eating disorders, and many people have misconceptions about these wide-spread mental illnesses. We are constantly exposed to media advertising the newest way to lose weight or change the way you look, and yet, talk of eating disorders and body image issues is almost taboo. This gap in conversation is an unfortunate reality that is causing more harm than good.
Though addressing how we feel internally is uncommon in conversation, negatively talking about our bodies has become commonplace. So common, in fact, that the phrase “fat talk” was coined to refer to the seemingly insignificant negative statements we make about our bodies in every day conversation. For example, have you ever heard someone say “Gosh, I’m such a fatty!” after eating a large meal or “I would feel so much better about myself if I lost ten pounds!” after looking in the mirror? I wrote “seemingly insignificant” because, in reality, this negative speech has a profound effect, especially on adolescent males and females. The saying goes “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt,” but I beg to differ—the way we talk about and treat ourselves and others in conversation can definitely cause seen and unseen emotional harm. Many people are not aware that the light-hearted “fat talk” they engage in and other pressures adolescents face from the media and other outside sources are triggering for both males and females that are predisposed to have an eating disorder. However, with education and awareness of these disorders that affect males and females of all ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes, beginning to change this reality could be as simple as changing the way we talk.
Also harmful to an individual’s perception of his or her body is the media’s focus on dieting and body shape. We are constantly bombarded with digitally altered and unrealistic representations of models and celebrities. These images can skew anyone’s body image, but given the fact that teenagers are still developing their own identity, it’s no wonder
that almost 50% of girls in middle school and high school reported that magazine pictures made them want to lose weight.1 This statistic should be alarming seeing as severe dieting has been shown to be one of the highest risk factors for the development of an eating disorder.2 The pressure to look a certain way can lead to unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives. Research shows that over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys report using at least one of these behaviors to control their weight.3 The teenage brain is particularly susceptible to environmental pressures because it is constantly changing and, in fact, is only 80% developed during adolescence.4 Influences from fluctuating hormones add to the effects of outside influences making it almost impossible for a young adult predisposed to have an eating disorder to be able to fight it off on their own.
As a young adult and a part of an extraordinary team of eating disorder professionals at Veritas Collaborative, I have gained a perspective on eating disorders that has made me consciously aware of what desperately needs to change in our culture. In a society where negatively talking about ourselves and striving to have the “perfect” body has become more important than having a positive body image and striving to have the “perfect” answer to a math question, it can be very difficult to reject the pressures to not just want to be thin but to be… perfect. My interactions with the individuals under our care, particularly as a tutor in the Education Program, have allowed me to see how easy it is for someone suffering from an eating disorder to go undetected or without the proper care and support. The lack of support out there for young people with body image issues and eating disorders and the unawareness and misconceptions most people have about anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders has become even more apparent. However, I have hope that those of us dedicated to changing the current reality of our culture will be able to help many find a path to recovery from their eating disorder. I also have hope that we can educate and recruit others to join us on this journey along the way.
Subjects only remain unspeakable if we allow them. Eating disorders will become more prevalent if we let them. Girls and boys with negative body image and eating disorder tendencies will only suffer if we don’t change the dialogue and the way we treat them. Thankfully, though, this reality can be history if we all try to shift our focus from extrinsically-centered ideals to intrinsically-centered values. By reassessing our actions, our words, and our interactions with those around us, the power to change our culture is entirely in our hands.
— Written by Bronwyn Fadem,
1. Prevention of Eating Problems with Elementary Children, Michael Levine, USA Today, July 1998.
2. I’m, Like, SO Fat!., Neumark-Sztainer D. New York: The Guilford Press. 2005. p. 5
3. Onset of eating disorders: population based cohort over 3 years. GC Patton, R Selzer, C Coffey, JB Carlin, R Wolfe. BMJ. 1999; pp. 318:765 –768.
4. The Adolescent Brain — The Dana Guide. Sandra J. Ackerman. The DANA Guide to Brain Health. November 2007