Women and weight
The thinner you are, the better you are going to feel about yourself. At least, that's what the fashion and diet drug industry would have you believe. But an informal survey conducted by The Royal Gazette Lifestyle section found that when it comes to a woman's self-image, their actual weight is almost beside the point.
Reporter Jessie Moniz,decided to conduct the e-mail survey about body image after four different conversations with women, in one week, about weight. One woman was considering drastic surgery to reduce her weight. Another woman who exercised constantly planned to lose 40lbs in the coming year, and blamed cheese sandwiches for her woes. Another woman was setting up a Facebook page to share advice with friends about losing weight, and another was convinced that a special exercise machine could shake the fat off and balance your hormones at the same time.
In the survey, a 5ft 6in woman in her 40s wrote to us that she had obsessed about her weight her entire life and had never weighed over 125lbs.
She said: “I used to try every diet I could find. I used to carry a calorie counting book around with me so I could check the number of calories in every food I ate... And since I never weighed over 125lbs this is a pathetic way to be. If I felt this way I can't imagine how a woman who truly has a weight problem feels.”
About 13 women took our survey. Almost all said they had stayed home at one time or other because they felt fat. One single woman in her late 20s said she hadn't been out socially in months, because she needed to lose 50lbs. Many women who responded had tried diet pills, and many had considered some kind of drastic surgery. The only reason they hadn't done it was out of fear or lack of funds.
It was like so many women had looked into a fun house mirror, and forgotten what they really looked like. Some studies have shown that as many as 80 percent of American women are unhappy with the way they look, and from the responses we got in our survey, Bermudian women are probably no different.
Many survey respondents said they first became aware of their weight at a very young age. One Smith's parish woman in her 30s said, “People made me aware that I was ‘fat' from young, probably around age seven. By the time I was in high school, I was self-conscious about it.”
Another woman in her 40s said: “I was obsessed with being thin from age eight straight through my 30s. At some point I decided it was too exhausting and gave it up. It was also at that point that I decided other people's opinions of me mattered less than it used to.”
Who is to blame for their feelings of inadequacy? There are two traditional bogeymen, the first being the media. Fashion models are held up as the ideal woman, but are usually thinner than 98 percent of other women.
According to the website www. eatingdisorders411.com, the average woman is 5ft 4in and weighs around 140lbs. The average high fashion model is just under 6ft and weighs 117lbs.
Women in the survey were asked: “How damaging do you think the media is to women's body image? We are raised with this image of Barbie as the ideal woman, but who can measure up to that?”
One woman answered: “It is tremendously damaging we tie our self-worth to our appearance, and even to our economic detriment. We spend hundreds of dollars a month on hair care, some spend $70-plus weekly for nail maintenance, and I don't know how much on makeup. Most men I've known hate the contrived and complicated hair styles, hate the talon-like nails so many spend good hard-earned money on, and they also think most of the makeup we wear makes us look cheap. They actually like the natural woman, they want one with a bit of avoirdupois [weight], not walking sticks. We aren't doing it for our men; we are doing these things in competition with other women. It's about how we look, not how we feel.”
A 20-something woman said the media was terrible.
“Every other commercial is about a diet pill, diet trend or exercise machine,” she said. “Actresses are perfect sizes because they don't eat and models are air brushed to the max on any magazine cover. The Barbie image is impossible unless you despise food or can afford plastic surgery. I'm all about using more realistic women in the media. It would make everyone less tense and less pressured to look perfect. Call me crazy, but I don't think seeing a ribcage is glamorous at all.”
The second traditional bogeyman would be mom. Whose voice is it you hear when you look at your behind in the mirror? For most women it's not the voice of the fashion industry, it's the voice of their mother. The dress is fine, it's just you in it that's the problem… Even minor comments from a female in the family a woman looking into the mirror and saying how fat she was, or celebrating the loss of 2lbs, could affect a female child's self-esteem and weight awareness.
Carolyn Costin, a spokeswoman for the National Eating Disorder Association in the US, has said that young girls try on their mother's diets the same way they try on their high heels. In her studies she found that girls as young as five years old became unhealthily diet savvy when their mothers dieted.
One survey taker told us: “I think women influence others in the family to a greater degree than the media. I have a friend who deliberately ate more when she was in her late 20s to rebel against her mom who kept telling her she needed to lose weight. When her mom stopped criticising her she lost the weight on her own.”
In August 2006, an article from Reuters reported that girls whose families criticised their weight or eating habits were more likely to develop lasting problems with body image and self-esteem. And three percent of young girls with body image problems go on to develop serious eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Twenty percent of those with serious eating disorders, die without treatment.
Cherita Rayner, a psychologist at Turning Point Substance Abuse programme at the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute, said it was hard to give specifics about how prevalent eating disorders were in Bermuda. She thought severe cases were quite rare.
“Disordered eating in general, can be a part of many different situations such as depression or anxiety,” she said. “People may be seeking help in the community with psychologists for other issues.”
She said if you have a child or adolescent who is not eating, or running to the bathroom as soon as they finish eating, the first thing to do is take them to a paediatrician or family physician.
“From there they may refer them on if they need further treatment,” she said.
Of course, weight loss and loss of appetite can also be a sign of illness or an underlying medical condition, so it is important to seek help.
“You can't deny that body image is an important part of adolescence,” said Dr Rayner. “Part of being an adolescent is looking for the group to fit in, the people to be associated with. A lot of the research on eating disorders does look at the impact of the media and body image. It feeds into some of the maladaptive thinking. If someone already has a feeling of low self-image and then are presented with idealised images and feel they don't measure up, it can exacerbate symptoms.”
Talk to your doctor if you are concerned that yourself or a family member has an eating disorder. For emotional support you can also try Overeaters Anonymous. They meet every Wednesday from 1 to 2pm in the Stevenson Room at Wesley Methodist Church, 41 Church Street, Hamilton and on Sunday from 7 to 8pm at the Red Cross Building at 9 Berry Hill Road (training room two). For more information e-mail oabermuda[AT]hotmail.com or visit www.oa.com.
A few warning signs of an eating disorder from http://www.something-fishy.org:
Dramatic weight loss in a relatively short period of time.
Frequent trips to the bathroom immediately following meals (sometimes accompanied with water running in the bathroom for a long period of time to hide the sound of vomiting).
Use or hiding use of diet pills, laxatives, ipecac syrup (can cause immediate death) or enemas.
Isolation. Fear of eating around and with others.
Hiding food in strange places (closets, cabinets, suitcases, under the bed) to avoid eating (anorexia) or to eat at a later time (bulimia).
Flushing uneaten food down the toilet (can cause sewage problems).
Keeping a “food diary” or lists that consists of food and/or behaviours (ie, purging, restricting calories consumed, exercise, etc.)