The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

Dieting Pressures Start Early & Last a Lifetime

The Wall Street Journal ran an informative article yesterday by journalist, Jeffrey Zaslow, as a follow-up to a front-page story he did in 1986 on the dieting pressures and body ideals facing 9 year-old elementary school students.   Over twenty years ago,  Zaslow’s questioning found that over half of the girls surveyed reported that they were on a diet and 3/4 of them claimed they were too heavy. Additionally, the fourth-grade boys that were interviewed had negative things to say about the girls in their class who were not thin, which added to the pressures girls felt to lose weight .

Back then, the 1986 article helped to shed light on the problem of America’s obsession with thinness.  Unfortunately, the weight loss pressures have only gotten worse and the rates of eating disorders have risen dramatically since the ’80s.  Zaslow’s follow-up article hoped to answer questions about whether those fourth graders would somehow outgrow the image-focused mentality of their early childhood,  or “would these girls be burdened by the dieting culture as they grew into women?”

In his recent piece, Zaslow writes, “Those girls I interviewed are 32 and 33 years old now, and when I got back in touch with some of them last week, they said that they and their peers have never escaped society’s obsession with body image…some told stories of damaging diets and serious self-esteem issues regarding their weight.”

He also spoke with a researcher about the consequences of disordered eating on children at such a young age and reported that “A preoccupation with body image is now showing up in children as young as five, and it can be exacerbated by our culture’s increased awareness of obesity, which leaves many non-overweight kids stressed about their bodies.  This dieting by children can stunt growth and brain development.”  

As parents of young children it is important to be reminded that the issue of body image and weight is not one of vanity or something to be ignored.  It is serious and has serious consequences. This article shows very clearly that there are long-term effects and ongoing battles with food and weight that can stem from disordered eating and distorted body image in fourth grade and even earlier.       

It’s never too early.  Talk with your daughter.  Talk with your son.  Find out what they think and believe about weight and size and whether they feel pressured (or are putting pressure on others!) to look a certain way or to lose weight.  The conversations you have with them now, could prevent another generation of weight-obsession and rising numbers of eating disorders.

The Center for Eating Disorders’ Outreach Department is available to work with local parenting groups and organizations on how to foster healthy eating and positive body image in your children.  Call (410) 427-3886 for more information.

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