The Thinness Trap

The desire to be beautiful and thin (and for many the two are interchangeable) certainly isn't new. Open any fashion magazine and you'll see page after page of rail-thin models. Diet plans and books on how to achieve a better body abound. Some women seem to feel the pressure to conform to an unrealistic ideal - and society too often seems to have little tolerance for those who fail to achieve that goal.

Earlier this month, a dancer with Boston Ballet who had developed an eating disorder died while visiting her family in California. About 18 months earlier, the ballet company had advised the young woman to lose weight. It later warned her not to become too thin.

Boston Ballet has reacted admirably, saying it's determined to make this tragedy "a turning point." It is taking steps to become more aware of eating disorders among dancers and to prevent dangerous weight loss.

Some companies, noted for being more tolerant of different body types, already have launched campaigns to make dancers aware of the dangers of becoming too thin. Yet, most ballet companies still need to reexamine their standards for thinness.

The same can be said for the rest of society. Girls as young as 8 or 9 often are dieting. Surveys say 15 to 62 percent of female athletes have "eating problems," depending on how that term is defined. And the use of diet drugs like the popular (and potentially lethal) "fen/phen" has become increasingly prevalent.

Legislation recently proposed in Congress calls for a toll-free hot line and an information clearinghouse on eating disorders in the Department of Health and Human Services. If that alerts individuals to steer clear of peer pressure, media images, and drug nostrums that argue success depends on constant focus on one's body, it should be useful.

But the real difference will come only when ballet companies, fashion editors, advertising executives, and the rest of us recognize that the "ideal" woman doesn't measure her success or self-worth according to her size, and that real perfection has nothing at all to do with body type.

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