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In the eye of the beholder

Posted Mar 11 2009 3:06pm
With the never-ending dangers of obesity seemingly appearing around every corner, coupled with an encouragement of dieting and unrealistic looking celebrities, I'm almost astonished that anyone has an accurate view of what they look like anymore. For teens especially, when notions of self are forming yet still so fragile, self-perception can easily become distorted. And this body image distortion can be very dangerous.

A new study found that teens who think they're overweight (regardless of their actual weight) are much more likely to report suicidal behaviors than those teens who thought they were of normal weight. This effect was effectively limited to females, which doesn't really surprise me as women have always been first in line for diet/weight/health/appearance invectives from society at large.

The study revealed that body dissatisfaction had a strong impact on all suicidal behaviors for girls and was generally insignificant for males. For instance, any perception of being overweight by girls raised the probability of suicidal thoughts by 5.6 percent, the probability of a suicide attempts by 3.2 percent, and the probability of an injury causing suicide attempts by 0.6 percent...

"The prevalence of body dissatisfaction, among special populations of youths such as non-black girls, is significantly higher than the general youth population, even when the underlying weight is in a healthy range," InasRashad, an assistant professor of economics at Georgia State University, said. "Interventions that identify and assist these youths and educate them regarding a healthy body image will succeed in lowering suicide attempts."

My problem is with Rashad's statement that "the risk of suicide by adolescent females could potentially add about $280 to $350 million to the costs of adolescent obesity, which includes the direct cost of illnesses and associated health care and indirect costs such as productivity losses, reduced income and premature mortality" is wrong on so many levels. Adolescent obesity isn't the issue here, it's the distorted body image that is being fostered by obesity prevention programs.

I'm not going to hold anti-obesity programming solely responsible for distorted body image among teenagers- that's too simplistic, and body image issues have been around long before the health/weight zeitgeist of the previous several decades. But clearly, it's not helping. If you're going to promote healthy body image, telling a teen that she can only have good body image if she conforms to certain standards essentially defeats the purpose.

I do support programming that helps kids move around for fun and eat a wide array of foods, but let's take the "weight" aspect out of the equation, shall we? I don't think it's helping.
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