body image

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Project Louise: Lose Ugly Belly Fat Fast! Yeah, Not So Much

(Photo: TORCH magazine via Compfight)

(Photo: TORCH magazine via Compfight)

By Louise Kennedy
Guest contributor

I had an epiphany of sorts over the weekend: I hate my belly.

Actually, you can’t really call it an epiphany if it’s something you’ve felt for just about your entire life. And ever since I got a little chubby in second grade – a chubbiness that lasted until puberty, returned with the classic “freshman 15” in college and has waxed and waned ever since – I have gazed down at the extra flesh between my navel and my hips with a mixture of shame, disgust and self-loathing.

And let’s just say that passing the 50-year mark hasn’t helped with any of this. Here’s how we know Mother Nature has a sense of humor: Just when your body stops being capable of pregnancy, it starts looking as if you’re already about 4 months along. Permanently.

But that’s no reason to hate myself, is it? Sure, I’d like to lose the weight. But if I don’t, I don’t want to carry around this toxic mix of negativity along with the extra pounds.

So here’s the real epiphany: I don’t want to hate myself anymore, not even one imperfect part of myself. I don’t have to love my belly; I just want to stop hating it. I want to make peace with my body.

My, that sounds sane. But you may come up with another adjective when I tell you what I did next: I Googled “belly fat.”

Here’s a quick tip: Don’t do that.

Oh, go ahead if you want to. But I can save you the trouble. Here’s what I learned: Continue reading

Young Girls Afraid To Gain Weight And Get Fat, Study Finds

mikebaird/flickr

mikebaird/flickr

A smart, health-conscious mom I know just drew the line: she’s going to stop reading “Grain Brain” — the compelling, controversial, potentially crazy-making new book that details the evils of carbs in general and grains in particular. She, and so many others, initially loved the book, which argues that carbs, even the whole grain variety, can “destroy” your brain and “cause demential, ADHA, anxiety” and more.

The problem, says this mom (beyond the what-can-I-possibly-pack-the-kids-for-lunch-with-no-grains dilemma), is that all the chatter about “bad foods” around her daughters might possibly increase their chances of developing an eating disorder.

This rang true to me as I came across this recent U.K. study on eating disorders in early adolescence.

Researchers from University College London Institute of Child Health and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that “six in 10 13-year-old girls, compared to four in 10 boys the same age, are afraid of gaining weight or getting fat.” And it got worse when the young teenage girls got a bit older, notes the report, published online in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The bottom line results, according to the study of more than 7,000 13-year-olds: “Extreme levels of fear of weight gain, avoidance of fattening foods, and distress about weight and shape were common among girls.”

Here’s more from the study, according to the news release:

•One in three girls (34%) and one in five boys (21%) were upset or distressed about weight and shape

•One in two girls (53%) and four in 10 boys (41%) avoided fatty foods

•A quarter of girls (26%) and one in seven boys (14.5%) had restricted their food intake (by fasting, skipping meals or throwing away food) in the previous three months Continue reading

TV Message To Tween Girls: ‘Do Anything, Just Be Attractive’

My 8-year-old daughter recently rose at the crack of dawn to wash her naturally wavy hair so it wouldn’t be “puffy” for a school assembly. She’d previously begged to have it straightened. Did I mention she’s 8?

While we all work diligently to tell our daughters how smart and strong and brave they are — and de-emphasize looks as much as possible — it’s a jungle out there when it comes to girls and self-image. A new study by U.S. researchers published in the journal Sex Roles reaffirms the uphill battle parents face. Here’s the headline: “Looks are all important for girls on tween TV.” And the not-so-subtle messaging, according to the researchers: “Girls can participate in everything that boys can, but while doing so they should be attractive.”

To arrive at this sad but not terribly surprising conclusion, Ashton Lee Gerding of the University of Missouri and Nancy Signorielli of the University of Delaware, reviewed “gender ideals” as conveyed by American television programs geared toward tweens ages 8-12.

Here’s what they found, from the news release:

Characters in 49 episodes of 40 distinct American tween television programs aired in 2011 on Disney Channel, Disney XD, Nickelodeon, and the Turner Cartoon Network were analyzed in terms of their attractiveness, gender-related behavior, and personality characteristics such as bravery and handiness with technology. Two specific genres were examined: teen scene (geared towards girls) and action-adventure (geared towards boys).

girls watching tv

…Overall, compared to males, females were portrayed as more attractive, more concerned about their appearance, and received more comments about their looks. Females were presented similarly in both genres. Overall, males were shown in varying levels of attractiveness, and were portrayed as more stereotypically brave in the action adventure genre.

A critical finding was that tween programs still portray females as more attractive and more concerned about their appearance than males. Continue reading

I’m Finally Thin — But Is Living In A Crazymaking Food Prison Really Worth It?

(nataliej/Flickr)

(nataliej/Flickr)

I am not fat. At just over 5 feet tall and 101 pounds, I’m actually closer to thin. It shocks me to even write this, but after a zaftig childhood and a curvy-bordering-on-chunky early adulthood, I find myself, in middle age, after two kids, to have reached my “ideal” weight.

But lately I wonder if it’s really worth it.

From the outside, thin is surely better. Other moms tell me I look great. I can consider bikinis. I appear far younger than my actual age and, with a perky, teen-sounding BMI of 19.9, I fit in my daughter’s Forever 21 tops.

But peek inside my brain: it’s alarming.

(Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

(Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

I spend an inordinate, and frankly embarrassing amount of time thinking about food, planning meals and strategizing about how to control my weight. It’s on my mind pretty much every waking hour of every day and the details are painfully banal: how many pumpkin seeds in my nonfat yogurt; will a green smoothie pack on an extra ounce or two; can I eat dinner early so my weight the next morning will be optimally low?

If I don’t exercise (Every. Single. Day.) I get depressed. If I stray from my short list of accepted foods, I can spiral out of control. My life is bound by a strict system of controls and rigid rules (maintained with a pack-a-day gum-chewing habit) that keep my weight in line. These include daily digital scale checks that set my mood each morning: 102.9 is bad news; 100.4 gets me high. Trivial? Yes. A shamefully first-world problem? Absolutely. But, sadly, true.

And widespread. A new report on women and body image conducted by eating disorder experts at the University of North Carolina makes clear the scope of the problem: a mere 12 percent of middle-aged women are “satisfied” with their body size. (An earlier study put the number at 11 percent.) What’s worse, perhaps, is that even those relatively content ladies are troubled by specific body parts: 56 percent, for instance, don’t like their stomachs. Many dislike their skin (79 percent unsatisfied) or faces (54 percent unsatisfied) or any other parts that suggest, in Nora-Ephron-neck-hating-fashion, they are aging.

The author as a not-quite-svelte child, in an undated photo from the 1970s.

The author as a not-quite-svelte child, in an undated photo from the 1970s.

The very first sentence of the study, published in the highly un-sexily titled Journal of Women and Aging, makes clear that women who are happy in their own skin are a rare, exotic breed; specimen worthy of study by a crack team of anthropologists. The report begins:

We know strikingly little about the intriguing minority of women who are satisfied with their body size. Defined as having a current body size equal to their ideal size, body satisfaction is endorsed by only about 11% of adult American women aged 45–74 years.

If you dig a little deeper into the study you’ll find that this “body satisfaction” is fragile. Women were asked if they’d remain satisfied if they gained five pounds. The answer (duh): “No.”

And these so-called “satisfied” women seem to spend a huge amount of energy maintaining. Continue reading

‘Thigh Gap': Reflections On Teenage Girls’ Latest Obsession

By Sylvia Pagan Westphal
Guest Contributor

A few weeks ago, my 13-year-old daughter brought up the issue of the “thigh gap.”

A thigh-what? I thought. I Googled it and was appalled by the latest teenage girl obsession: having ultra-skinny thighs, so much so that one can see a space in between them when feet are touching (hence, the gap) is a trait many teenagers now covet. Of course, for many, this idealized gap is physically impossible to attain. (Still, I must admit to checking in the closet mirror to see if I had one.)

topgold/flickr, creative commons

topgold/flickr, creative commons

I was relieved when my daughter said she found the trend unhealthy. At the same time, she said, it’s unavoidable.

“You hear about it from your friends, it just travels,” she says. “Usually when you first find out about the thigh gap, the normal instinct is to Google it and one of the things that comes up is Tumblr and you get these crazy blogs on how to get a thigh gap and how to diet so you get it.”

(It’s true, some of these sites are a parent’s nightmare, from Cara’s Thigh Gap on twitter, which I’m not even linking to it because of the inappropriate content, to less-bad-but-still-troubling Operation Thigh Gap. Even this level-headed wiki-how is anxiety-producing, in that it confirms the ubiquity of the trend.)

It’s a tough world out there for our teens. We bombard them with conflicting messages to stay fit and be healthy (see Michelle Obama) while at the same time asking them not to get too neurotic about their body image. Some of us mothers send mixed messages too. What matters is how beautiful you are on the inside, we tell them, yet we work out and order salads for dinner Continue reading

Feeling Fat, Feeling Old: No Age Limit For Bad Body Image

(NCI/Wikimedia Commons)

(NCI/Wikimedia Commons)

By Jean Fain
Guest contributor

“Look at these wrinkles.”

“I would do anything to look younger.”

“Do you want to come to a Botox party?”

You don’t have to read scientific journals to know that bad body image plagues women of all ages. There’s no getting away from the fact that, even before girls develop curves, self-perceived “figure flaws” are a deep source of distress for the vast majority.

Of course, there’s no shortage of scientific evidence confirming this sad fact of modern life. Just this month, a new study in the Journal of Eating Disorders confirmed what has become painfully obvious: bad body image knows no age limit.

If you missed that study, here’s the research recap: Trinity University psychologist Carolyn Black Becker and colleagues asked more than 900 American, British and Australian women between the ages of 18 and 76 about “fat talk” and “old talk” — complaints about feeling fat and old. All ages complained of feeling fat, but, surprisingly, even the youngest women worried about looking old.

To make sense of this surprising finding, I tracked down Becker and asked her why so many young women engage in “old talk.” Here’s what the San Antonio eating disorders expert told me: Continue reading

Regret Over Shorter Penis After Prostate Cancer Treatment, Study Finds

Patients facing treatment for prostate cancer expect to be warned of certain dismal side effects: erectile dysfunction and incontinence, for instance. But a new study suggests men should be warned of another possible complication: a shorter penis.

The new report found that a small number of men enrolled in a prostate cancer study complained to their doctors that their penises seemed shorter following treatment (though no actual measurements were taken). Some of the men reported that even this perception of a shortened penis interfered with their intimate, emotional relationships and caused them to regret the type of treatment they chose.

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men, with about 241,740 new cases diagnosed last year, according to the American Cancer Society. Obviously prostate cancer can be serious: it’s the second leading cause of cancer death (behind lung cancer) in American men.

But most men diagnosed with prostate cancer will live — and live with the short- and long-term implications of the type of treatment they choose to undergo. While the problems of erectile dysfunction and incontinence are widely known as possible side effects, few studies have been done on treatment-related penile shortening. But doctors say it can and does happen — though it’s rarely discussed with patients.

In the current study, which was based on surveys completed by physicians treating 948 men with recurrent cancer, a total of 25 patients (2.63%) complained of a shorter penis. Complaints were most common in men who underwent surgery to have their prostate removed (19 of 510 men) and those treated with male hormone-blocking drugs combined with radiation therapy (6 of 225 men), researchers report. None of the men on radiation therapy alone complained of this particular problem.

These numbers are clearly small; but researchers say the phenomenon, due to its intimate nature, is likely underreported. The takeaway from this study, they say, is that the possibility of a slightly shorter penis after treatment should be made clear to patients as they consider their therapeutic options; a frank discussion upfront might minimize later regret. “Physicians should discuss the possibility of this rarely mentioned side effect with their patients to help them make more informed treatment choices,” the study, published in the medical journal Urology, concludes.

From the January issue of the journal Urology

From the January issue of the journal Urology

Lead author Paul L. Nguyen, M.D., a radiation oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center in Boston, said the novelty of the work is that it shows how even the perception of a shorter penis can profoundly impact a man’s quality of life and lead to regret. “Some people might think this is frivolous — who cares about a slightly shortened penis — but it really does affect people’s lives,” he said in an interview. “If guys [in the study] had this bad result they were much more likely to regret the path they chose. This is important to talk about up front when people are making their decisions.” Continue reading

Is The Deep Desire To Be Thin Genetic?

The take-home message from a new study of twins conducted by Michigan State University researchers is this: genetics may play a role in making some women vulnerable to the extraordinary cultural pressure to be thin.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and published in International Journal of Eating Disorders found that “identical twins have closer levels of thin idealization than fraternal twins, which suggests a significant role for genetics.”

(tollieschmidt/flickr)

From the MSU news release:

From size-zero models to airbrushed film stars, thinness is portrayed as equaling beauty across Western culture, and it’s an ideal often cited as a cause of eating disorder symptoms in young women.

The researchers focused on the potential psychological impact of women buying into this perceived ideal of thinness, which they call thin-ideal internalization. Changes in self-perception and behavior, caused by this idealization, can lead to body dissatisfaction, a preoccupation with weight and other symptoms of eating disorders.

“We’re all bombarded daily with messages extoling the virtues of being thin, yet intriguingly only some women develop what we term thin-ideal internalization,” said Jessica Suisman, lead author on the study and a researcher in MSU’s Department of Psychology. “This suggests that genetic factors may make some women more susceptible to this pressure than others.”

To explore the role of genetic factors in whether women “buy in” to the pressure to be thin, the idealization of thinness was studied in sets of twins. More than 300 female twins from the MSU Twin Registry, ages 12-22, took part in the study. Suisman and colleagues measured how much participants wanted to look like people from movies, TV and magazines. Once the levels of thin idealization were assessed, identical twins who share 100 percent of their genes were compared with fraternal twins who share 50 percent.

The results show that identical twins have closer levels of thin idealization than fraternal twins, which suggests a significant role for genetics. Further analysis shows that the heritability of thin idealization is 43 percent, meaning that almost half of the reason women differ in their idealization of thinness can be explained by differences in their genetic makeup. Continue reading

Eating Disorders Afflict Older Women Too, Study Finds

(Alaina Abplanalp Photography/flickr)

Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and compulsive dieting are popularly perceived as afflicting mostly teenagers and young women. Just watch “Girls.” Or recall all those eating disorder memoirs with names like “Wasted” “Stick Figure” and “Home Sick,” the one by Ralph Lauren’s niece, Jenny).

Well, it turns out that screwed up behavior around food and body image persists in women over 50 as well, according to new research out of the University North Carolina. Surprise.

Here’s part of the news release:

…a new study reveals that age is no barrier to disordered eating. In women aged 50 and over, 3.5% report binge eating, nearly 8% report purging, and more than 70% are trying to lose weight. The study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders revealed that 62% of women claimed that their weight or shape negatively impacted on their life. Continue reading

The Art Of Surviving Anorexia

Meltdown, Puzzled, Missing Piece by Judith Shaw

By Karen Weintraub
Guest Contributor

Judith Shaw never meant to create art.

She was just annoyed at a “really pedantic” assignment in her recovery program, to make a timeline of her life with anorexia. She was in her 50s, had raised a family and had a career – unlike the other participants, who were adolescents or 20-somethings. And she couldn’t write a history of key events in her eating disorder, because that would mean distinguishing her anorexia from herself.

Instead, she made a life-sized portrait. And somehow a switch flipped in her brain. Making art could allow her to express what she had long kept deep inside.

That self-portrait was the first of many artworks Shaw would make as she came to terms with giving up her anorexia and claiming a new life.

Next Thursday, Shaw’s art goes on exhibit at Harvard, in the Student Organization Center at Hilles (SOCH) Penthouse level, 59 Shephard Street, in Cambridge. The exhibit is open to the public that first night from 8-10 p.m., and then to the Harvard community through March 10. Continue reading