Stereotypes of bodily beauty change with the ages, fluctuating from Rubenesque plumpness to Twiggy boniness. Living up to these images too often leads to eating disorders. To break that compulsion takes a new sense of self, with help from many others.
According to a new Harvard University study, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia occur twice as often among women as among men, and are most prevalent among women under the age of 20. These researchers also say that binge eating is more common than once thought.
Experts cite many pressures that make girls so body-conscious. The obvious ones are Madison Avenue marketers that send an avalanche of messages idealizing often unattainable standards for physical beauty. But even enjoyable pursuits such as ballet classes, gymnastic courses, or cheerleading exert subtle influences.
A growing recognition of how girls can be sucked into these shifting standards has led many women, from college athletes to fashion models, to seek broader definitions of beauty and selfhood.
In one 2002 study, almost half of female athletes in college showed symptoms of eating disorders. Coaches say many felt pressure to reduce their weight in the belief that being lighter will help them perform better. The good news is that more college coaches are paying attention to these challenges. One approach is not to weigh female athletes. The National Collegiate Athletic Association opposes weighing women on a regular basis, on the grounds that it can cause anxiety, given the relentless messages to be thin.
On another collegiate front, students at Notre Dame organized a three-day conference on eating disorders and campus culture last week. Campuses, they explain, are highly competitive environments that can foster a desire for perfectionism.
Another positive example comes from tennis star Serena Williams. Before the recent Australian Open, she was criticized for being heavier than usual. She went on to win the women's tournament. Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, hailed Ms. Williams for her "in-your-face redefinition of what a strong woman should look like."
In still another encouraging sign, former supermodel Tyra Banks now carries 30 pounds more than during her modeling days. Happy with her current size, she appears on the cover of a recent issue of People magazine under the headline, "You Call This Fat?" She knows firsthand that challenges with body image start early. A 9-year-old told an audience on Ms. Banks's TV talk show that she does not eat every day for fear of getting fat. Other girls as young as 5 on her program admitted to dieting.
No wonder middle schools are beginning to discuss these issues.
Beauty and fitness take many forms. A growing concern about public attitudes toward people being either overweight or underweight serves as a reminder that young people need to feel less pressure to conform to bodily measures.
Parents play a critical role, but coaches, teachers, and marketers play a part. Sending messages that reinforce a girl's sense of her own worth will reduce eating disorders, and perhaps finally define beauty as more than skin deep.