I just came across a fantastic article in the Wall Street Journal that revisits a 1986 article written by a reporter who interviewed several 4th grade girls in Chicago-area schools about dieting, media images and the need to be thin. The article compares their views then with what they think now as adults, 23 years later. The original project was meant to compare results with the now famous 1986 University of California- San Francisco study which revealed that 80% of 4th grade girls were dieting at the time of the study (along with several other startling statistics that were revealed in this study). The WSJ reporter’s study had very similar results. Over half of the girls he interviewed said they were on diets and 75% of them said they weighed too much. Not only were the girls’ results startling, but one boy the reporter interviewed said:
“Fat girls aren’t like regular girls,” one boy told me. “They aren’t attractive.”
It seems that most of those 4th grade girls originally interviewed have grown into beautiful, successful women who, for the most part, have escaped society’s obsession with being super thin. But, what is worth noting is the fact that none of them seem to have thrown the notion that beauty and thinness don’t matter in today’s world completely out the window. One woman said:
Today, she watches her weight “so I can be successful in a world that puts great emphasis on how a person looks.”
Another point I found interesting was one woman’s observation that anti-obesity children’s campaigns have backfired in that they make young girls even more obsessed with weight and image. Girls’ fears of being fat have created a lot of problems.
Compared with the fourth graders of 1986, girls today see body images in ads “that are even further from reality. Retouching is rampant,” says Claire Mysko, author of “You’re Amazing,” a book encouraging self-esteem in girls. She worries that childhood obesity-prevention efforts can make girls obsessive about weight. While these programs are important vehicles to fight a growing problem, “we have to be really careful how we are implementing nutrition and body imaging,” she says.
She speaks of her own observations as a teacher during lunch time:
On lunch duty each day, she notices 10 girls who eat nothing. “We make them take a few bites,” she says, “but they fight me on it. They say, ‘I’m not hungry,’ and I tell them, ‘You’ve been here since 8 a.m. Of course you’re hungry!’ ”
Last night I was talking to one of my friends who is a middle school teacher and she shared with me her observations of some of the students at her school who also don’t eat during lunch. When she asked one student about her lunch time non-eating habits, the student said she wasn’t hungry and she just eats at home. My friend then asked the girl what she eats when she gets home to which the girl replied “Oh you know, a cracker or something.”
I think this timeline of dieting then and now shows us that it’s only gotten worse. As the writer of this article points out, girls in 1986 didn’t have pro-ana sites and hours of youtube thinspiration videos to turn to like girls today have. Behind society’s obvious contributions to our increased obsession with youth, beauty and thinness (like ultra thin runway models and unbelievably skinny young TV starlets), there lies much more that I believe contributes to the problem. And that is what we learn from the people we see on a day-to-day basis: moms, sisters, girlfriends and even dads and brothers.
If Mom is constantly dieting and obsessed with her food portions and her weight and is exercising like a maniac, what type of message does it send to her 4th grade daughter? After all, actions speak way louder than words. I believe that many of us can give a really nice speech about how images of super thin models and actresses can damage our daughters and should be stopped, but what about the damage it causes (and has caused) to you?! It’s naive to think that just because we are “grown up” we are automatically too mature to be susceptible to the influence that society can have on the way we think about our bodies.
This study revealed that girls are dieting because they hate the shape of their bodies and certain body parts. Well I know plenty of grown women who feel the exact same way about their bodies; we all start somewhere. Perhaps the worldview of 4th grade girls doesn’t change as much as we think when we “grow up.”
I personally love Harriet Brown’s perspective on all this. I don’t have a daughter, but I am working on myself every day to make sure that one day, when I do have a daughter, I can teach her to love her body in the true sense, so that she can love herself in 4th grade and forever.