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This month, men's magazine Esquire dedicates its cover and the "best-looking woman in America" title to the curvy Mad Men star Christina Hendricks. But featuring--much less celebrating--voluptuous, or even realistically sized, bodies remains a rarity on or in women's magazines and celebrity tabloids. Find an image of a normal-sized celeb, and it's often accompanied by a story speculating whether she's gained weight or might be pregnant.
The fact is, we’re still a culture obsessed with the scale. Entire tabloids are devoted to showcasing the best and worst celebrity bodies, guessing who’s gained or lost weight and giving out the “diet secrets” of skinny starlets. And our girls are, well, eating it up--with often detrimental effect. Dr. Rebecka Peebles, a Stanford University pediatrician who specializes in adolescent health and eating disorders, says, “Studies have shown that many types of media depicting thin imagery and dieting tips can be harmful to adolescent body image.”
There’s also evidence that exposure to such images can have a marked detrimental effect on girls’ eating habits. In the late 1990s Harvard Medical School researchers surveyed Fijian high school girls three years after western TV programming was set up in the small nation, where a bigger body was once considered more attractive, and found that 62 percent of the girls polled reported dieting in the previous month. Worse, 11 percent said they threw up to control their weight—none of the girls reported doing this the year TV was introduced in Fiji.
It's not clear if these seemingly never-ending images of super-skinny stars—from Keira Knightley, Lindsay Lohan, and Kristen Johnston to the 90210 cast—and relentless headlines about quick ways to slim down are leading to more cases of eating disorders among teens. But experts say that for those who are genetically vulnerable to eating disorders, the national obsession with weight may push them over the edge. “Genes load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger,” says psychologist Cynthia Bulik, Ph.D., director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina.
Tracking down actual numbers in the U.S. is tricky though: The National Institutes of Health notes a “continued debate” over whether the prevalence of eating disorders is increasing. The agency currently estimates that between 0.5 and 3.7 percent of females suffer from anorexia and 1.1 to 4.2 percent suffer from bulimia. But in a new report, researchers from Stanford University found those numbers may minimize the true prevalence of the illnesses. Definitions may be too strict and rule out people who need treatment, says Peebles, the lead author of the study, which looked at medical records of 1,310 females ages 8 through 19 years.
Though anorexia is classified as a psychiatric disorder, its physical consequences can be fatal. Beginning with symptoms such as dry skin, dizziness and loss of menstrual periods, anorexia can lead to kidney dysfunction and life-threatening cardiovascular problems. Baby boomers remember how singer Karen Carpenter died of heart failure after long a battle with anorexia. More recently, 21-year-old Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston weighed just 88-pounds when she died after being hospitalized for kidney problems that resulted from anorexia. Bulimia can result in tooth decay, fainting, tearing to the esophagus and an abnormal heartbeat.
Increased pressure on the media and fashion industry to show more realistic images has netted some positive changes. Some designers and magazine editors are beginning to show more real bodies—a trend we applaud. At a recent Harvard University forum, “Health Matters: Weight and Wellness in the World of Fashion,” Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour reportedly spoke of the “tyranny of [sample] clothes that just barely fit a 13-year-old on the edge of puberty,” and fashion designer Michael Kors promised to use only models 16 and older in his shows. But these are small steps compared to the flood of airbrushed images of skinny celebrities—images that can be “poison” to the anorexic mind, says Mia Holland, Ed.D., department chair of counseling studies at Capella University. “Girls with anorexia see thinness portrayed in the media as something to be achieved to be powerful.”
The good news: Some adolescent girls may be predisposed to developing a problem, but teaching healthy habits can steer many of them away from the destructive path of weight obsession, say experts.