March 7, 2014

The Rule of Averages: My Take on Body Image

I don't normally write or talk about body image issues because I really try not to waste too much energy on it, but let's face it, I am a female in America so I have thought about it.  Lately I have been thinking about why we seem to have such an issue with body image in the good old U.S. of A.  I was watching a show on Netflix from Australia (Dance Academy if you are curious) and noticed that despite all of the main characters being ballerinas, they did not seem excessively skin
ny to me.  It made me wonder why body image, like many things, seems to be so much more of a problem in this country.  Being a fan of statistics, I had to try to find some good old numbers to back me up.  Here they are:

Both the United States and Australia have similar rates of eating disorders at around 9% of the population.  My idea that America was way ahead in this race was wrong, but does not change my perception of the problem, only widens the scope to a global issue.

Some more unsettling statistics for the United States include:
This is me in 7th Grade (Looking Confident, right?)
  • 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner
  • 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat
  • Of American, elementary school girls who read magazines, 69% say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape. 47% say the pictures make them want to lose weight
The idea that such young children are already struggling with body image is so very unsettling and makes me wonder what all contributes.  There is tons of research on the influence of media, toys, beauty pageants. and peers.  I do wonder though, are we really considering everything?  Would changing beauty images really make a difference or are there other subtle things that influence our children to think about and worry about weight.

I am going to get a little vulnerable and I want to apologize to my family up front.  Know that I love you all and this is not an attack nor am I blaming you fro anything.  I was always a skinny kid.  I grew tall really young and was always pretty thin.  Among my family members, I was somewhat unique.  Like many families in the U.S., most of family would be classified as overweight.  When I was young, I remember thinking that I did not want to grow up to be overweight like my family.  I was going to beat genetics and stay a thin girl forever.  I have never wanted to be the thinnest or to look like a super model, I just didn't want to have to have the struggles I saw my mother have.  Struggles to find a swimsuit that looked okay or to find pants that fit well.  As I got older, several members of my family were diagnosed with Type II diabetes.  I hardened my resolve to beat genetics and not have to cut sugars and carbs and feel the need to turn to artificial sweeteners to avoid a bland diet.  I never knew who I wanted to look like, but I knew who I didn't. 

When I got pregnant with my son, I weighed about ten pounds more than I really wanted to, but I had been half-heartedly trying to loose those ten pounds for years, so it wasn't the end of the world.  I again made my resolve.  I had seen women gain fifty to eighty pounds during a pregnancy and enter Mommyhood with a completely different body than they had.  I didn't know who I wanted to be, but I knew who I didn't want to be.  After my little was born, I lost half of what I gained.  The other half has hung around.  So be it.  I do wonder, though, if blaming the super skinny models and celebrities isn't the whole issue.  Maybe we need to be blaming the idea that overweight people are somehow less than, or someone you don't want to be.  We have been spending so much time fighting obesity that we may be scaring young children into body image issues.  Young children may not always want to be Miss America, but they also don't want to be The Biggest Loser.

The bottom line is, I am average sized for an American woman.  In 2010, the average woman was 5'4" and weighed 165 ponds.  I am little taller and a little heavier than that so I figure I am in the ballpark.  But sometimes I still get comments like, "You don't look like you weight that much?" or "These pants are a 10, they would fit you right?"  Some people may find people thinking they are thinner they are to be a good thing, but to me it says that my actual weight or actual pants size is not okay or not average.

We seem to have lost a sense of what average is in this country.  I was recently struck by baby clothing sizes.  This may be a stretch, but stick with me.  My son has always been on the small size when it comes to percentiles, usually hovering between the 10th and 20th percentile for weight and the 20th and 30th for length.  Remember, these percentiles are based on the sizes of babies across the entire country.  But, throughout his life, he has progressed through infant clothing sizes right on time.  He moved up to 3 month clothes when he was 3 months old, 6 months at 6 months and now that he is almost 18 months he is just transitioning into 18 month clothing.  So, if he is on the small side, why are infant clothing sizes seemingly perfect for him?  Can we really be sending a message that smaller is more "right" at such a young age?  I here other parents say how "huge" their baby is when their 6 month old is wearing 12 month clothes, but the bottom line is, that even infant clothing is set up to skew our idea of average.

Maybe if we embraced average we could loosen the grip of poor body image from our young people.  Little girls should not need to feel like they should be thinner at the age of six.  Are we telling average girls that they are above average?  Are we scaring them with our anti-obesity campaigns to the point of unhealthiness?  Body image is complex and everyone has different experiences, but we need to remember that Barbie and Miss America are not the only issues here.  There just may be more to it.

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