“Britney Spears is fat. She has a huge stomach that sticks out and it’s really disgusting.”
These very words were uttered by a 10-year-old girl I tutored. Absurd sociocultural standards of thinness and beauty like this are causing severe eating disorders in 10 percent of college students.
As my pupil and I flipped through People magazine, she stopped at the page with a photo of the plastic princess of pop. Then she promptly informed me that our beloved beauty Britney is overweight and unattractive.
How could this be? Is not Britney Spears the female sex symbol of our time? Doesn’t every 10-year-old girl strive to look like her? Apparently not. She’s just too fat.
After I recovered from the initial shock of the comment, I insisted that Britney Spears was thin and attractive, but my pupil would not concede. At that point, I could not help but worry about the future health of the girl sitting before me. If she truly believes Britney Spears is an obese cow, what must she think about her own appearance? Even more saddening is that my pupil is not the thinnest girl on the block. So, given her assessment of Britney Spears, she must feel tremendous shame and guilt about her own body weight.
Remarkably, popular culture and media have generated these disturbing misconceptions of weight among the youth. By fourth grade, 80 percent of California girls have gone on a diet. This is no surprise considering that young girls are taught Barbie is the standard for beauty. If Barbie were life-sized, she would stand 5-foot-9 and weigh 110 pounds, with measurements of 39-18-33. According to the Barbie benchmark, Britney is indeed fat.
In our increasingly image-conscious society, the line between dieting and suffering from an eating disorder is blurred. A diet may begin as a quick way to lose a few pounds or get in shape, but it can quickly spiral out of control and become a full-blown eating disorder.
Most of us have a lot in common with people who suffer from eating disorders. We all have problems in our lives and feel the need to control events which affect us. Eating disorders are just one method of coping with these anxieties. People with eating disorders feel they are unable to control their lives and problems, so they turn to eating habits as a means of asserting control and distracting themselves from their pain.
The quest for thinness is an obsession. The culture of disordered eating is so pervasive in our society that we unintentionally encourage eating disorders. A popular myth that encourages anorexia is the story that the University of California at Los Angeles Dining Services adds starch to the lettuce so that anorexics can get more calories and vitamins from eating a diet of salad only. (This myth is absurd and untrue, according to Joanne McGill of UCLA Dining Services.)
There are many other ways we might casually encourage disordered eating every day. Complimenting someone when they lose weight from dieting reinforces the behavior and encourages even more restrictive eating. Expecting perfection and saying that a person is healthy because they are thin is also dangerous.