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
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
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