The 2014 Winter Olympics provided much-needed positive role models, and shone a spotlight on physically fit, active athletes. We need more of these role models because we’re inundated on a daily basis with unrealistic, unhealthy images of what we’re supposed to look like.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, right now in Canada 70 per cent of women and 35 per cent of men are on a diet. www.tinyurl.com/facts-eating-disorders
What are we teaching our children?
Diets don’t work. The vast majority of dieters eventually gain the weight back. Though most of us lack the talent, commitment or aspiration to make it to the Olympics, we can think and live more like champions in our everyday lives by modelling positive behaviours that include regular exercise and healthy eating.
Girls’ role models are typically skinny women – actresses, models and cartoon characters – with tiny waists and hips, giraffe-like legs and disproportionately large busts. Many dolls young girls play with have unrealistic bodies.
When I was growing up, I played with Barbie dolls, but I never felt pressured to look like Barbie. I was content and secure with myself. That was in the 1960s and ‘70s. Children then were not exposed to as many sexualized and unrealistic body images as are kids. today We didn’t have social media, all those cable TV channels or video games. Most of the images we were exposed to were much tamer, as it was a more conservative era.
One of the dangers of body image issues and dieting is that they can lead to eating disorders. Many young children are thinking about dieting and, according to the National Initiative for Eating Disorders – www.nied.ca – the rate of eating disorders in girls is 18 per cent. That’s nearly one in five girls! And that’s double the rate of obesity in girls.
Boys also suffer from body image issues and eating disorders. Ten per cent of childhood eating disorders occur in boys, and 20 per cent of adult eating disorders occur in men.
While girls typically want to be skinny, many boys want to be muscular. The strong and lean mid-century Superman character that my generation grew up with has been replaced in recent decades with a super hypertrophied freak. Yet, this is the type of image boys are exposed to when they play with action figures and video games or watch cartoons. Heroes with pumped-up bodies contribute to reverse anorexia in boys and male teens – the fear of being thin and weak.
According to the Saskatchewan government – www.tinyurl.com/sk-eating-disorders – up to 90 per cent of eating disorders begin with a diet. Eating disorders are characterized by extreme feelings and thoughts about food and eating, as well as with one’s body weight and shape. Individuals may be preoccupied with counting calories or grams of fat, or they may engage in excessive exercising.
There are three main categories of eating disorders:
1. Anorexia Nervosa – characterized by extreme food restriction and a distorted belief they need to lose weight even when they become dangerously underweight;
2. Bulimia Nervosa – characterized by attempts at weight control via frequent episodes of binge eating and purging (self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, fasting or excessive exercise);
3. Binge Eating – characterized by feelings of loss of control and eating enormous amounts of food in one sitting, often in secret and post-binge shame and anxiety, which can lead to more binge eating. Binge eaters don’t purge or exercise obsessively, so they are often overweight or obese.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental disorders, with 10 to 20 per cent of sufferers dying from complications.
As parents, we can influence to some degree how our children feel about their bodies. Focusing on a healthy lifestyle – eating well and being active – is a good start. Modelling other positive behaviours is important too. We can contribute unknowingly to our children’s negative body images if we express dissatisfaction with their or our own appearance, weight or shape, or if our children see us obsessing about calories and diets. In addition to engaging our families in a healthy lifestyle, it’s important to have open conversations with our children about what’s healthy, safe, and realistic.
If you suspect that you or someone you know has an eating disorder, please refer to the resources in this article and contact a mental health professional who specializes in eating disorders.
Gloria Schwartz is a personal trainer at the Soloway JCC.