Sunday, August 07, 2011

A Heavy Burden: Raising Healthy Families in our Weight Obsessed Culture

Deborah Russo, PsyD, Dena Cabrera, PsyD, & Amy Spahr, LCSW
Remuda Ranch Treatment Programs

Studies confirm the powerful influence our consumer culture has on
imprinting norms of behavior.  Family dynamics, biology, technology, and our powerful media culture contribute to shaping families.  How do we help parents, caregivers and other leaders navigate the winds influencing our youth culture especially as it relates to weight related and body image issues? This article highlights the factors that shape beliefs and attitudes toward our bodies. It will offer ten ways to help families develop resilience and build protective factors encouraging positive and confident relationships with body and weight.

What we know
We have learned a great deal working with more than over 10,000 women and girls suffering with eating and anxiety disorders for the past 20 years.   For instance, several things we know: (i) eating disorders including body image issues are complex and involve a myriad of interrelated contributing factors, (ii) physical perfection has no form and, therefore, can never be attained, (iii) popular media and marketing will never let you believe this, and (iv) friends and family are too often the worst sounding board for negative thoughts about body image.  Countless girls and women in particular of various shapes and sizes have engaged in the fruitless pursuit of physical perfection.  This pursuit often begins in adolescence and persists throughout the entire lifetime. 

Perfection in our culture is often viewed as taller/shorter, curvier/thinner, softer/toner, and lighter/darker than the individual.  However, these targets are often a reflection of the negative feelings we foster for our own appearance, and not defined by some measurable goal.  Dissatisfaction with physical appearance is a growing trend among both females and males and effecting younger ages.  Bedford and Johnson (2006) compared body image concerns in younger and older women and revealed no age-related differences in body dissatisfaction.  Similar findings were reported by Reel (2000) who discovered that although no significant differences existed between the various ages of women, the 40-59 year old females reported the highest body dissatisfaction.  

It’s not just about dieting
But where does all this start?  The influencing factors of weight related and body image issues are complex.   Eating disorders and obesity are caused by many factors that interact with each other. Individual characteristics, including genetics and temperament,  family factors, peer influences, community factors, and societal factors all may play various roles in causing weight related issues and body dissatisfaction.  Despite the complicated influencing factors on where it all started, the consequences on the individual are profound. 

Numerous research studies have confirmed that body dissatisfaction is closely linked to self-esteem in adolescents, more so than in adults.  Thus if a teen is struggling with body dissatisfaction, it may interfere in the development one’s self concept and sense of identity.  Regardless of our levels of sensitivity to our own imperfections, vulnerability to criticism increases during the developmental years as puberty blossoms both physical and emotional changes most rapidly.  The social constructs of the narrow standard of beauty most often projected confuses most children.  We often hear teen girls say…“Those images are living inside of me; how am I supposed to be feminine without being overly sexual?”, “How do I see my strengths apart from my looks?”
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