Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Why It's Important to Be an Ugly Middle School Kid

"Hundreds of preteen children treated for eating disorders"
I read the article above today, which left me extremely sad, although less shocked than I care to admit. Eating disorders numbers are up among girls, ages five to thirteen, according to a British report by The Telegraph. Data from over 35 hospitals in England reveals that over 2,100 patients under the age of 16 have been treated for eating disorders, although sources acknowledge that this is a gross underestimate of both hospital admittances and the overall extent of the problem.

Eating disorder expert, Susan Ringwood, whom was interviewed for the piece, states that:

The ideal figure promoted for women these days is that of a girl, not an adult women. Girls see the pictures in magazines of extremely thin women and think that is how they should be. That can leave them fearful of puberty, and almost trying to stave it off.

I'm glad that someone has recognized that the Western standard of beauty is that of a pre-pubescent child, because, while people are quick to criticize that female models in magazines are “too thin,” it is rarely acknowledged that they are not really women at all. Anything that makes a woman a woman physically-- breasts, hips, thighs, etc.--- is minimized and devalued in modern media. Maybe this is correlated with ageism in our society. We desire the young, we desire to recapture our own youth, and our media images reflect this. Whatever the reason, I think as a culture we need to do a serious double-take when we realize our physical role models and objects of sexual desire essentially have the bodies of children.

This is all beside the point. We're very familiar with the detrimental effects of these super-thin, pre-pubescent, size-0 figures on grown women, but what are they doing to our growing girls? The time during puberty is crucial for full development. It is a time when intense physical, mental, and chemical changes occur in the body, all of which contribute to one's growth and healthy adult functioning. Without proper development during this important time, one's adult health can be severely compromised.

But it ain't pretty. I took a trip through puberty-memory-lane a few years ago when I perused my middle school year book. Here's a little secret about middle school: everyone is gross. You don't believe me? Seriously, take a look; ten bucks says you agree with me (checks can be made out to Megan Carlson). Aside from a few late-bloomers, everyone is oily, pimpled, fat, and awkward. However, I think, as adults, we can all look back with some humor at these pubescent years and realize that it was all part of growing up. Most importantly, it was normal and necessary. We would not be healthy adults today if we had not endured through this painful, though short-lived (well, for most of us), stage.

However, Ringwood states that young girls may now dread this stage for fear of weight-gain. Not only, then, is this thinness-obsession psychologically damaging to developing girls, but also physically detrimental. I think if the body-image issues girls face are not addressed, somehow, we face a public health crisis, the full effects of which will be seen in coming years as these girls develop (or not) into adulthood.

Recently, our neighbors across the Atlantic have started to address this issue. Britain's Advertising Standards Authority has tightened restrictions on how much digital manipulation can appear in ads, understanding that all the photo-shopping is misleading and harmful to body image. The ASA is currently facing global attention for banning certain L'Oreal advertisements (featuring non-other than famed beauties, Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington) for excessive airbrushing. While this has received mixed commentary from the public, I think it is hopeful that someone has the courage to reveal the man behind the curtain and shout, “Hey, this is not real!”

We can learn from this here in the States. Specifically, if we start making the connections between media image (which creates an unrealistic and distorted standard of beauty) and personal body image, we can properly frame negative and misleading advertisements as part of a public health crisis-- something worthy of the time, money, and research needed to investigate and implement a wide-spread response. This could be an essential first step to reconstructing our standards of beauty so that our kids can grow up to be healthy, confident, self-actualized adults.

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