Healthy Kids    

Mom, I'm bulimic

Teaching our Daughters To Like The Way They Look

Six months ago a friend confided in me that she was seriously considering having what she deemed a "terrible scar" on her midriff removed or minimized. During a freak accident that involved a fall last winter, her spleen ruptured and she had emergency surgery. "There's a raw snaking line-that's really ugly," she said.

Two women my friend knew had volunteered the information that the scar was awful: "Barb," one of them told her, "If the surgery saved your life, that's great, but that is one hell of a hideous scar."

Mom, you're not fat!

My friend, Barb, felt really low after that remark. One friend had blurted out her opinion about the scar while Barb was trying on dresses in a department store fitting room. "The thing is," Barb told me, "I didn't think it was that bad-not before their comments."

She hadn't been thrilled with the aftermath of the emergency splenectomy-but she didn't think it was terrible until two women she trusted told her it was terrible.

And therein lies the key...we can be taught-persuaded-to change our opinions about ourselves and our bodies based on other people's standards of beauty and ugliness.

Barb is 41 and sharp...and what her friends said gave her pause...our daughters are in grammar school and junior high and high school and have far less experience fending off beauty myths foisted on them by movies, media, their culture, their friends and their families.

"No big deal," you say--but the deeper issue is when we dislike our bodies we stay fixated on appearance and we forget that real self-esteem is drawn from resources more lasting, worthwhile and empowering than mere physicality. More importantly, poor body image is reliable indicator of future eating disorders-including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. Fortunately, there are several national campaigns afoot aimed at preventing eating disorders and enhancing young women's sense of self.

Go Girls, for example, is a 12-lesson program that helps girls avert eating disorders before they become entrenched by exploring the nexus between media and body image in a variety of ways. Girls are taught to become savvy about critiquing media and advertising and learn how to analyze the underlying messages. Holly Hoff, the Program Director for EDAP-Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention-- a Seattle-based non-profit organization which developed Go Girls says the effectiveness of the program was tested "during a rigorous 3 year study. In addition to learning how forces dictate images of beauty and how messages are created, the girls learn to speak out and find their voices: Go Girls enables them to write letters to ad executives-and to celebrate healthy messages and to excoriate those which are damaging."

Bad body image kills!

After completing the program, girls become aware of how images are manipulated in the media and how that impacts their self-concept and eating habits.

While obesity is more commonly focused on as a health issue, eating disorders-because of the underlying pathology-- can be more serious. Which translates into one tough cookie of a question: How do we teach our girls (our kids, really) to eat well, eat healthily and feel good about themselves-given the cultural mandate that thin is beautiful?

John Harrington, M.D. a pediatrician affiliated with the Children's Hospital of Westchester Medical Center, says some "pre-pubescent girls become very anxious about gaining weight and becoming rounded as they mature."

According to statistics, four out of five children at the age of ten are afraid of becoming fat and wish they were thinner and four out of five American women are dissatisfied with their appearance. Given that half of the entire population of American women are on a diet on any given day-what messages are we sending our daughters? Our sons?

We have to acknowledge the difficulty of achieving some kind of balance...lots of us are unhappy about how we look, lots of us diet to be thinner (and of those who diet, 35% will progress to pathological dieting.) We know the danger of eating too much-yet many of us are absorbing the message that we cannot eat too little, that being hungry all the time is acceptable. 'There's no such thing as too rich, or too thin' an old adage trumpets. In any case, we feel bad about how we look.

For many women and girls, the body they strive for is closely modeled on that of the Barbie doll--first manufactured some 40 years ago. Some mature women who played with the original Barbie dolls, feel woefully inadequate-and felt so most of their lives-when they stacked themselves up against her.

Janet Marino, 49, of Fishkill was simultaneously eaten up with envy of Barbie's figure and face as a child and madly adoring of her. "I wouldn't buy one for my daughter, Ellen," she said, shaking her head. "I think there's so many more interesting things for daughters to do."

Bikini season already?

Her daughter, of course, was not completely Barbie-proof-able-"Her aunts bought them as Christmas gifts; or, on other occasions, like birthdays, well-intentioned friends sent them to Ellen," she shrugs. "Of course Ellen's circle of friends had hundreds of Barbie dolls among them and when she played with the other girls-Barbie was part of the scene..."

Enter Jennifer Baker, founder, designer and president of which manufactures a line of multicultural dolls called G5. The dolls were developed after much research--including focus groups during which kids of both sexes and varying ages played with fashion dolls and the G5 dolls and activity sets. "Function was important to the kids, so our dolls can move their wrists, for example," she says. "The dolls were also modeled after real people-not a fantasy as some fashion dolls are," she adds.

Interestingly, Baker speaks about how the dolls encourage aspirational play that is not necessarily gender related. The G5 science set comes with a magazine that features two prominent female scientists-Ellen Richards and Maria Prophetessa. It encourages activities that have not typically been girl play-in this case, mixing plastic included in the kit's contents-to make a super ball. But the magazine (or Zeen) in the kit promotes imagination even more so, by inviting kids to use ordinary household items to make furniture-like a science lab table for the dolls.

Baker believes girls' self esteem is enhanced by learning they're good at something or by making things. It was how she herself, first developed self-confidence. And as a "big sister," through Philadelphia "Big Sisters," she helped her little sister blossom by encouraging her to be creative.

We talked about Barbie-who unlike the G5 dolls-does not have anatomically correct proportions. In one of the focus groups her researchers conducted, sixth grade boys' comments about "Teacher Barbie," revealed sexuality and objectifying. "And girls are often taught to buy into men's fantasies of what they should look like-and to what end? So that they, too become like objects."

Baker believes "what children play with influences their thoughts and development and that it's the responsibility of society to provide toys that nourish children by stimulating curiosity, critical thinking and creativity.

Mattel promoted Barbie as doll president and received the backing of a nonprofit White House Project that promotes women as political candidates-and the New York Times ran a picture of Barbie standing at the podium with bouncy, shoulder length hair that is more than eerily reminiscent of Nicole Kidman's portrayal of Suzanne Stone in To Die For. entered Vanessa-an African American doll who is educated and active in the community. Like the other G5 dolls, Vanessa as an air of assertiveness about her which some men-including toy buyers-find disconcerting. Her eyes are piercing, her chin is uplifted-her feet are flat on the ground.

Baker says that initially when they were designing prototypes of the G5 dolls they considered making them slightly heartier, but many of the mothers they consulted felt the dolls looked too heavy.

I'm so beautiful

And John Harrington, M.D. acknowledges parents have to be careful about how they talk about food and food issues in front of children. "It's important to play to the child's strengths," he says. For children who are overweight, there are ways of helping them eat well and exercise-try going bike riding as a family. "If it's easy to eat, kids will snack on it." So instead of stocking up on say, chips, keep grapes-already snipped from the stems-on hand. As a parent, you're going to be around for approximately 16 or so of the 21 meals a week your children eat-so you can monitor what is-or is not-being eaten.

Eating disorders are serious-and becoming more widespread as more cultures are driven by media images of thin women. As a parent you want to instill in your daughters and your sons a sense of self-esteem that is predicated on inner qualities-not on weight or appearance.

My friend Barb told me the other day she decided against having the scar repaired. "It doesn't bother me-it'll fade somewhat in time. I certainly wouldn't want to think of myself as unattractive-all because of one scar." Time, I joked with her heals all wounds. She laughed right back. "And anyway, I don't even think about it anymore-I'm too busy enjoying my latest career switch and painting more oils to replace the ones I'm selling."

Indeed, even as I write these words, Barb is in Marseilles-painting the sea around her and basking in self-esteem.

Amelia Graham is a freelance writer and former teacher who lives in Fishkill..