February 21, 2011

ralph_lauren_model_i_was_fired_for_being_too_fatFebruary 20th-26th is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.  Eating disorders are a sensitive topic, making it too easily and too often skipped in conversations about health and wellness.  Overlooked are discussions with young about body image, among whom this crisis runs rampant.  The media still swoons, after many years, over the “perfect” size 0 body.  So I’d like to ask: Where are the role models for young women?  Why is this destructive media attention to unattainable thinness allowed to continue when there are 10 million females and 1 million males suffering from disordered eating in the United States—an illness related to the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder?

As a nurse and a nurse practitioner student, it has become my role as a provider to intervene when I see a child nearing the clinical label of “overweight”.  I must speak to the family about healthy food choices and exercise, but is a fine line I walk when approaching my patients and their families.  I think, “Could I create an eating disorder in this young person?  How can I best be sensitive to their needs?”  Similarly, when I see a young girl, painfully underweight with little self-confidence, how can I also approach her with the same sensitivity?  How can I effectively battle the images young people are assaulted with daily in movies, TV, and magazines in the exam room?

From my own experience as a Division I collegiate cross country and track and field athlete, I know the physical and emotional toll body image issues took on my teammates and myself.  The secrecy of this unspoken “thing” was apparent in our nightly rituals, as we distance runners sat in the dining hall together, after two or more hours of grueling practice, eating little and comparing meal choices, silently, to those of our teammates.  We had severely low BMIs and most of us no longer got our period–both indications of malnutrition and unhealthy bodyweight.

I know we weren’t the only ones coping.  I watched female gymnasts, field hockey and basketball players, as well as my friends in the dorm struggle, too.  But where were our coaches, health care providers and teachers?  Where were our positive role models?  No one talked about it.  Through our misery, we continually received reinforcement that our emaciated bodies were “beautiful” and “healthy” via images of the professional athletes we aspired to be like, and through media portrayal of the “ideal” woman.  So, the bones we were seeing in the mirror were beautiful?

Women in college are not the only ones at risk.   In 2009, Ralph Lauren made national news for firing a size 4 model for being “too fat” after they had severely altered her image in their campaign (see above).  This is where the National Organization for Women and the National Eating Disorders Association come in with their “Let’s Talk about it Campaign”.  Visitors to the site are encouraged to speak out against media representation of unrealistic bodies bombarding the eyes and minds of us all.  On the website, you can share your story and feelings or be inspired by videos of others who have struggled with their own self-image and come out stronger on the other side.

Do you have your own story of a struggle with body image?