(as printed in Canadian School Counsellor Magazine-Winter 2013)
As a Health Promoter and Prevention of Eating Disorder specialist at the Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association for over 8 years, I have had the privilege of delivering presentations to thousands of adolescents and youth in schools and community forums. It is well researched that eating disorders commence in adolescence and predominately affect females, but males can also be affected. Since their onset begins during a period when young people spend a significant amount of time in schools, it is important for educators to understand the complexities of these disorders and the necessary roles of prevention and treatment. Also, it is imperative to be attentive to body image and body based harassment concerns, which can equally lead to unhealthy behaviours with serious consequences.
Body image and eating disorders are sensitive issues. The stigma, vulnerabilities, and complexities associated with these struggles make them that much more difficult to manage and contend with. It is crucial that teachers, counsellors and other support staff in schools examine their own attitudes about body image, dieting, stereotypes about weight, shape and size prior to effectively working with those students who are experiencing problems in this area. As educators, we must set healthy examples in both our eating habits and our physical activity lifestyles in order to be good role models for the young people around us. When students hear that the adults in their lives are involved in the ëbiggest loser contestí or that there is a competition for ëextreme makeoversí they will begin to believe that they should be participating in these contests or initiatives as well. According to recent North American statistics 70% of women and 35% of men are dieting at any given time; the alarming fact is that 95% -98% of diets fail. When reading about diets we are not being told about the minimal 2-5% success rate; we are told that with will power, commitment and determination we can achieve the ideal body. Our society is constantly telling us to change, alter or modify something in order to fit in or be liked. Dieting begins at a very young age when many children do not fully understand the consequences but feel the pressure to participate with the majority of their peers. In the article, Appearance Culture in Nine to Twelve Year-Old Girls: Media and Peer Influences on Body Dissatisfaction, Marika Tiggemann and Levina Clark indicate that nearly half of all preadolescent girls wish to be thinner, and as a result have engaged in a diet or are aware of the concept of dieting. In 2003, Teen magazine reported that 35% of girls, 6 to 12 years old, have been on at least one diet; and that 50-70% of normal weight girls believe they are overweight. Overall research indicates that 90% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance in some way. It is crucial to understand that these issues around body image, self-esteem and diets begin long before the teenage years. Consequently, these issues are not new for teens but have had some time to develop and infiltrate their lives.
In a society where we experience a great deal of stress trying to keep up with our fast paced lifestyle – surrounded by fast food and demanding work schedules – it is almost impossible to be healthy. We know that eating healthy requires time and preparation which seems to be less and less available for all of us. Interestingly our lives are inundated by images and messages from the mass media telling us that we should look a certain way and weigh a certain weight, forgetting that genetics also plays a significant role in our body structure. The young people looking at these illustrations fail to recognize that the images we see on the glossy pages of the magazines are all air brushed and edited to appear flawless and lacking absolutely nothing. Sixty nine percent of girls in one study, (Eating Disorders: Body Image and Advertising -2008), said that magazine models influence their idea of the perfect body shape. We need to continuously reprogram youth from the messages they are receiving from the media and society. This bombardment about thinness, dieting and beauty tells “ordinary” girls and women that they are always in need of adjustmentóand that the female body is an object to be perfected. It is an ideology that never seems to be achieved or attained for so many young girls and women creating disappointment, a sense of failure and self-blame. Educators should focus on teaching young people to increase their confidence in their own unique talents, abilities and interests while reducing their reliance on physical appearance and from using conventional opinion as their main measure of self-worth. Media education has been called the perfect curriculum: it’s timely, it’s multidisciplinary, it’s easily assimilated into the classroom, and it promotes critical thinking skills. Media literacy takes time and effort but in the end the payoff is boundless. If young people are able to look at the media and identify its purpose, which is mostly economical gain, they will then begin to understand that those images and lifestyles are unrealistic and unattainable.
Growing up everyone experiences some form of teasing or bullying, the majority of it seems to be related to appearance in one way or another. We know that people who are teased and/or bullied do not go to bed at night and forget about it the next day, waking up with a clean slate. It is something that can stay with us and affect us for a lifetime; this is why we call it Body Based Harassment. Body Based Harassment is a behaviour where girls’ bodies, (boys can experience it as well), are the target of negative commentary. It is typically coined as teasing, giving it a social acceptability, but represents harassment based upon the objectification of the female body, pressure to conform to a socially defined body norm for girls, and any negative remark directed toward any part of the body (Larkin & Rice, 2005). According to the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario study from 2004, by age fifteen, many girls react to constant teasing and harassment about their bodies by resorting to extreme weight loss and binge eating. The serious consequences of this form of harassment can result in females becoming disengaged from school events, decreased participation in physical activity, disconnection from peers, depleted self-esteem, negative body image, eating disorders, and even suicide. Body based harassment can happen face to face, behind someoneís back, walking down the street or through the ever so popular social media. Cyber bullying is a form of harassment that makes use of the latest technology. Primarily the harassment occurs on the web where the bully feels empowered sitting behind a screen and not face to face with the victim. Sadly, this form of harassment is much more permanent and can have lasting effects. Damaging information, including secretly recorded conversations (via cell phone), can be posted on blogs or websites. Cyber bullying can occur 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is instant and the message can carry very far within seconds. The only way to stop this is by creating zero tolerance policies in schools for this type of behaviour and enforcing them with serious consequences.
Our function as educators is to make sure young people understand some key facts. The first one being that weight gain is a normal part of development, especially during puberty. It is also important to stay away from negative statements about food, weight, body size and shape and we can even take it a step further – advocating for zero tolerance of harassment and discrimination about size and appearance. Compliments are wonderful tools which can facilitate in the development of positive self-esteem by focusing on one’s accomplishments, talents and personal value rather than just appearance. Keeping the lines of communication open can make a big difference. Adolescents are exposed to so many messages which at times can be very confusing for them; they need clarification, more information and an outlet to express their feelings, opinions and emotions without being judged.
Lastly, we should teach young people to BE YOURSELF and RESPECT YOURSELF and then OTHERS WILL TOO. These are key words to live by.
Luciana Rosu- Sieza, Interim Executive Director for the Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association (Windsor, ON). She has delivered presentations to thousands of children, teens and adults in her community for over 8 years on topics of self-esteem, body image and media literacy. She is also the editor of Apply Bytes newsletter.