Children and Body Images GETTING BEYOND BARBIE

Article excerpt

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. …

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