CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Consider this scenario: A husband and wife go out to dinner on a Saturday evening. For dessert, the wife enjoys a large serving of tiramisu. But the next morning, in the presence of her young children, she sighs and says that now she must work out at the gym and eat cottage cheese to make up for the calories in the rich dessert.
That is precisely the kind of message Bonnie Lieberman wants parents to avoid giving children. As outreach coordinator at the Massachusetts Eating Disorder Association in Newton, she shares this cautionary tale with 11 mothers who have gathered on a Thursday evening for an unusual seminar on helping children gain positive self-images.
"A preoccupation with thinness is definitely an issue that's trickling down to younger and younger ages," says Ms. Lieberman. "Parents may not be aware of the messages they're giving children."
Girls as young as 5, she explains, are sometimes concerned with dieting, weight control, and caloric intake. She tells of fourth-grade girls who drink liquid diets, and notes that in one study, 31 percent of girls report a fear of being fat by age 9. By age 13, 80 percent of girls say they have dieted.
Some are going beyond dieting. The New York Times recently reported that 14,000 adolescents had plastic surgery in 1996, up slightly from 1992. But while in the past they opted for nose or ear jobs, the biggest increase in teen cosmetic surgery has been for liposuction, breast augmentation, and tummy tucks.
"They may be getting these concerns from Mom, Dad, or the media," says Lieberman.
Seminars like this reflect growing parental interest in countering pervasive media images that emphasize beauty and perfection. As another measure of widespread concern, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of "The Body Project," a study of adolescent girls, says she is "swamped" with invitations to speak to girls' schools, parents' groups, and girls' organizations. Even school psychologists are seeking her advice.
"Parents, mothers in particular, suffer from these body issues themselves," says Ms. Brumberg, a professor at Cornell University. "They're well aware that little girls are under unrelenting pressure. So much of women's value is linked to their appearance." Evidence also exists that boys worry more now too.
The problem becomes compounded, Brumberg adds, because Americans live in a "highly medicalized" society. "Health and lifestyle are on everybody's mind. We worry obsessively about being fat. We count fat grams in the supermarket. Little children sitting in the toddler seats in a shopping cart are observing, and they see what adults are afraid of."
Seated around a large table in the offices of Families First parenting programs in Cambridge, seminar participants trade examples from their own experience. One mother tells the group that her three-year-old daughter complains, "Mommy, I have such a fat tummy."
Still another mother shares the experience of her teenage son, a runner who was sidelined from the track team after an injury. During his recovery, she says, "He went from being skinny to normal. But other kids were calling him chubby, even though he was still slender."
That prompts another mother to caution that even well-meaning high school coaches can unwittingly convey negative images when they tell girls they must lose weight to run.
Coaches, Lieberman adds, need to be aware of the messages they send when they ask students to lose weight. But parents have obligations too. She says, "A family needs to decide whether that sport is the right one for a particular child's size and build. Maybe there needs to be a reevaluation."
Lieberman believes in starting with preschoolers to convey positive images. "If children feel good about who they are when they're little, they can counter negative images when they're older," she says. "We also need to educate girls at puberty that they may gain 10 to 20 pounds."
On the positive side, Lieberman notes that some teen magazines are starting to use Emme as an oversize model. She praises Kellogg's for advertisements that emphasize well-being rather than thinness. "How do you weigh your self-esteem?" one ad asks. And she cites The Body Shop cosmetic chain for its new magazine, Full Voice, which promotes an acceptance of many sizes.
Brumberg urges parents and other adults to think about the messages they send to little girls. "Emphasize what their bodies can do, rather than what they look like," she says. Instead of cooing "Oh, how cute" to a five-year-old, she offers a better response: "Have you dropped your training wheels on your bike?"
She also advises adult women to "stop reading each other's bodies. Every time we greet each other, we can stop commenting on appearance and saying things such as 'You look great.' "
Emphasizing the importance of efforts like these to counter a cultural obsession with thinness, Lieberman says, "To try to obtain the physical ideal portrayed by models in magazines and in the media is not possible. We need to enjoy our body images as they are."