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Comments to the Federal Task Force on Childhood Obesity: ‘Body dissatisfaction’ as a cultural norm

Joanne Ikeda, co-founder, Center for Weight and Health | April 7, 2010

A few months ago I met with a group of mothers of young children.  They asked me to come and talk to them about feeding their families.  I am not sure how they found me, but quite likely it was through a search on the internet.  I am a faculty member in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at UC Berkeley, and my area of expertise is pediatric overweight.   All of the media attention focused on pediatric obesity has raised parental awareness of this problem, and now along with ensuring that a child gets into an Ivy League University, most parents are burdened with the responsibility of ensuring that their child does not get fat.  Parents take this responsibility very seriously but most of them are confused about the mixed messages they are getting and they are worried that they are sending mixed messages to their children.

The most poignant example of this was the voluptuous and attractive woman who was concerned because one day her 5 year old said that she never wanted to get fat when looking at herself in the mirror.  While in line at the supermarket, the same 5 year old pointed to a woman on the cover of Vogue magazine and said, “Look how beautiful that lady is, Mom!  Isn’t she pretty? I want to look just like her when I grow up.”   Mom didn’t know how to respond, especially in light of the fact that she wears a size 16, so she said, “Yes, she is beautiful,” and left it at that.  Now, Mom was saying, “I’m worried.  She’s so young.  She’s too young to be worried about her body size.”  I almost felt like responding, “At what age do you think she will be old enough to take on this task?” but of course I didn’t.  Instead, I listened with a great deal of sympathy recognizing that this woman was trying to deal with a problem that has become endemic in our society – that of body dissatisfaction.

According to cultural anthropologists, body dissatisfaction has become a “cultural norm” among women and girls in this country, and is afflicting men and boys in greater and greater numbers.   Last year I met with a group of UC Berkeley freshman, and the topic of “body bashing” came up.  Both males and females admitted that they often sat around with their friends and disparaged their own bodies as well as the bodies of others.  When I suggested that the next time this happened, they refrain from participating and even try to change the discussion topic, they all looked at me as if I was from Mars.  Admittedly, as a 62 year old woman, it is difficult for me to understand why anyone would want to engage in a diversion that is so obviously hurtful and damaging to everyone involved.  But the students didn’t see it that way – for them it was a rite of passage; something they expected to do and did do.  My concern is, will they ever mature to the point where they can appreciate and value the bodies they have?  Sadly, these students failed to understand how they have been conditioned by our society to think that body dissatisfaction is acceptable and appropriate.  No one has ever challenged them to question their attitudes and actions.

On the other hand, the mothers I talked with recognized the link between self-esteem and body esteem.  They understood that their children will have difficulty liking, accepting, and respecting themselves if they are unhappy with their bodies?   But they wondered how to promote and sustain body satisfaction when the danger of becoming fat/obese is a constant threat.  What if we liked our bodies just the way they are and helped our children do the same?   What if we didn’t expect to look like the people on the magazine covers and didn’t promote that expectation in our children?   What would happen then?  Would everyone everywhere become fat!  Oh, horrors!  Then we wouldn’t have anyone we could legitimately discriminate against and stigmatize.  There would be no one to feel superior to because, “I may be fat, but I’m not as fat as she is!”  People couldn’t make snide remarks about “pretty faces on bodies that need to lose weight.”  We wouldn’t be able to blame the fat people for driving up health care costs in this country.   On the bright side, the weight loss industry would prosper; diet books would continue to be on every best seller booklist;  and bariatric surgeons would be in high demand.

Seriously, what does happen when children, teenagers, and adults love and appreciate their bodies?   Do they neglect those bodies by feeding them junk?  Do they fail to appreciate the “high” of being physically active?  Do they practice unsafe sex?  Fail to wash their hands after using the rest room?   Rarely get enough sleep?  Never wash their bodies or brush their teeth?   Of course not!  Loving one’s body, motivates people to take care of their bodies.  People with high body esteem and self-esteem want to keep their bodies healthy.    They view themselves as valuable people who have something to contribute to society, and they want be around as along as possible to make that contribution.

Human bodies come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes.  We intuitively know there will always be small people and tall people, big people and little people, fat people and thin people.  We know that the “ideal body” is something conjured up by the people on Madison Avenue who have ulterior motives, almost all of which are financial.  We can reject the superficial value system that leads us to believe that beauty is flawless skin, silky, shining hair, long legs, puffy lips, and an emaciated, cellulite-free body.   We can promote an alternative definition of beauty.

In answering the Mom who wanted to know what to say to her daughter who thought the woman on the cover of Vogue was beautiful, I said, “Tell her you don’t know if that woman is beautiful or not.  You have never met her.  You don’t know if she is kind or cruel.  You don’t know if she treats others with respect or disdain.  You can’t tell if she is considerate and compassionate or mean and selfish?”   These are the things you need to know before you can say whether or not she is beautiful.

Comments to “Comments to the Federal Task Force on Childhood Obesity: ‘Body dissatisfaction’ as a cultural norm

  1. I’m a photographer and I see this problem more and more. Kids are now more fashion and body conscious than ever before – it’s a trend that worries me, but when I speak to them, I don’t think they even realise it’s an issue. Personally, I blame the rise of celebrity culture and the desire to be thin. Good article though – thank you.

  2. Good article. I certainly understand the mind and body connection and feeling good about yourself and appreciating the way you look physically. And yes in today’s world of pre-processed foods and TV ads it’s easy to let obesity get the better of you. Like you say the human body’s size and shape is largely determined by your genes, but there’s a number of things you can do to help to help to improve it.

  3. I’m a photographer and I see this problem more and more. Kids are now more fashion and body conscious than ever before – its a trend that worries me, but when i speak to them I dont think they even realise its an issue. Personally, I blame the rise of celebrity culture and the desire to be thin. Good article though – thank you.

  4. Very often people who consider themselves beautiful physically have a superiority complex. Somehow they gain an idea that physical beauty can help them to solve all the problems in life. Usually after that people feel disappointment or emptiness in heart.
    But! On the other hand, people with unpleasant appearance can have inferiority complex that also prevent people from being happy.
    In fact, anybody need to find their own way to feel the balance in life and good way of inner development. I saw many people with just ordinary appearance
    but they seemed to be lit up from inside. I think it’s more important in life.

  5. I have an 11 year old that will not eat anything that is not out of a packet now and she was brought up on fresh organic foods. I am at a loss at what to do

    • Sometimes children adopt bizarre behaviors in order to get their parent’s attention. Your child probably knows that you think eating fresh, organic food is important. She realizes that if she insists on eating processed food, you will be concerned, and, in fact, you are concerned. The more attention he receives because he will only eat processed food, the more tenacious he will be in adhering to this behavior.

      My advice is to let her go ahead and eat processed food. At the same time, give her more attention by asking about the best and worst things that happened to her that day. Or ask him what he is looking forward to doing tomorrow. Give him your full attention when she responds to these questions. Perhaps if she gets attention in a positive way, she won’t feel the need to get your attention by adopting strange food behaviors.

      There are a number of packaged, processed foods you may want to have on hand because they are nutrient dense. This includes: non-sugared, ready-to-eat cereals; hot cereals like Oatmeal; cartons of low fat milk; 100% whole wheat bread; mozzarella cheese; low fat yogurt, sliced chicken and turkey; frozen vegetables; and frozen fruit or fruit canned in water or fruit juice. The one advantage these have is they have nutrition labels on the packages so you see if it’s low in fat, sodium, and added sugar.

      Console yourself with the assurance that your son or daughter is not likely to adhere to this behavior forever. While raising two daughters, I had to keep reminding myself that “this too will pass.”

  6. I think alot that has to do with child obesity comes from TV and other media. And in any major city you either see an ad or a fast food place itself, so it becomes something natural, which it is not.

  7. It is too bad that we are so caught up in comparing our beautiful bodies to everybody else and falling short, hence the dissatisfaction.

  8. Hi very well said Joanne ,
    It is a tragidy that the norm to these children and adults is to think like this . There values are all mixed up and they have a deluded perspective.
    That does not mean i judge them infact i sympathise greatly . The lean from the world around them after all. I admire anyone who can actually see things for the way they really should be becuase it is so hard to not reform to the conditioned state that we are hypnotised to be in.

    social pressure is every where we look is`ent it joanne ? really nice read and what a very clear perspective you have.

  9. As a graduate, I regret not keeping the better shape I was in. Though I’m not obese, I miss the benefits of my better past health. it’s not just my fitness that’s gone down, but my appearance as well. i wished I had my past shape b/c i was better looking in it. Also, it’s easier to find a significant other that’s worthy when you’ve got a better physical profile, and you have higher self-esteem and feel more human in the finer sense. Increased physical fitness and better looks equals better health, self-esteem, and social resources.

  10. I agree that individuals that are overweight of obese shouldn’t be discrimanteda against. However, overweight and obesity has become an epidemic and obesity causes very real and serious health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, etc.

    This issue does need to be addressed. People need to be willing to change their lifestyle and their eating habits and parents must educate their children about how to eat well and why regular exercise is beneficial, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally also.

  11. There is an important industry that makes money with this, that’s the problem. Weight loss and bodybuilding suplements are an important market niche.

  12. I used to be one of those children. I remember the first time I weighed myself on my mom’s scale. I was in 1st grade and was with my best friend. We were both over 60 lbs, while all of our friends weighed in the 40s. That day marked the start of my fear of food and my everyday struggle to lose weight.

    In 5th grade I was up to 130 lbs when all of my friends were ~100, so I decided that I would do whatever it took to lose weight. I didn’t eat any food at all for 4 days straight. I weighed myself and was upset that I hadn’t lost much weight after those 4 days, so I threw my hands up in the air in frustration and binged.

    I kept this horrible body image and fear of food until a little over a year ago when I finally began to learn about nutrition and the science behind weight loss. (I’m 25 now) I learned about the glycemic index. Eating to control my blood sugar changed my life. Eating protein and fat with meals, avoiding sugar and high glycemic foods allowed my body to start functioning correctly. Weight began to fall off. I didn’t feel deprived or overly restricted. I just kept my blood sugar in mind every time I chose food to eat and picked things that would keep my blood sugar from spiking.

    For the first time in my life, I love my body and I love food. I don’t need or want to lose more weight, and I don’t have to try to stay at the body weight that I am now. I eat healthy food when I’m hungry. It isn’t hard.

    If I could go back and tell my 6 year old self anything, I would teach myself about healthy eating. I wouldn’t focus on the question of fat or thin, but I would tell myself that the most important thing is to be fit. Sure it’s important to not hate your body, but health is also important. If somebody would have convinced me that it was ok for me to be overweight when I was a kid, maybe I would have been happier for the past 20 years, but I would currently be headed for diabetes.

    • I found this article very interesting. I have two young daughters myself. They have both entered the stage where they idolize all of the disney princesses. My wife and I often find ourselves torn between breaking her heart and removing from that from their lives because of how we feel about the image presented by such things and just letting them have fun and not being worried so much. At least that is what we hope.

  13. Can’t there be an accurate disclaimer on the magazines due to the lack of truth in the photo? Obviously we are looking at a magazine photo of a woman who has been airbrushed. And, what about the eating disorders models must endure to keep a certain weight? Magazine covers hurt women on physical and emotional levels. It sets women up for self destruction that is lasting. My disclaimer would read – WARNING: This visual image has been drastically altered. May cause severe depression, eating disorder and low self-esteem.

    • I think more people need to remember that beauty is something created and sustained within – it’s who you are as a person that matters and not if you are overweight or too thin. As for those that eat nothing but junk food, it’s correct to assume this stuff is not great for you, but more important, it’s what you do with all those calories that matters. American’s need to step up to bat and exercise more – plain and simple. Even if it is just a walk that later translates to a jog, it’s a beginning to keeping your body in balance. I read an article once that when we were all kids, we use to exercise at least 3 hours a day, but as adults, the majority are exercising less than 3 minutes a day. A few weeks ago, I read that as women, my 30 minute workout has not been enough, but that I need to exercise 1 hour per day, just to keep my current weight. Guess I better get off this computer and take a walk.

  14. Great article… I can see where you are coming from in talking about body esteem and self-esteem. I think body esteem is something that more and more people are becoming frustrated with, mainly due to the lack of exercise and the poor diets going on in this country. It is sad when I look around and see the people I know eat out every single meal of the day and most of what they eat are fast foods. Obesity is at an all time high and it continues to grow. Not only is that a problem, but a lack of a good diet is causing diseases that could be prevented with proper nutritional habits. I really think we need a reform in the school systems that teach kids more about nutrition and how to cook their own healthy meals. That would do this country a whole bunch of good.

  15. I wonder if “the good home cooked meal” and “playing outdoors” could prevent this. if basic nutrition and excercise are practised and followed then we have little obesity and little “body image” issues

  16. These are lovely comments. I have an almost four year old son and this is a wonderful answer to a question that has started to pop up in our household. Thank you!

  17. They view themselves as valuable people who have something to contribute to society, and they want be around as along as possible to make that contribution.

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