Posts Tagged ‘eating disorder’

MANOREXIA

August 24, 2012

Our new issue of GQ magazine arrived today. The magazine comes in my fiancée’s name, however we both enjoy the subscription. While I generally skip over the articles about sports and cars, I do enjoy the monthly glimpse into the male universe. What are they being told to wear, read, eat, and listen to? Why are there 20 variations of the same brown loafer in my front closet? The answers are in this magazine. Plus the ads are much more arousing and don’t illicit the same self-loathing as those in women’s magazines. Read: gorgeous men, often in states of undress. But I digress. When I picked up the new issue, I immediately noticed the coverline: “SPECIAL REPORT: WHY MEN ARE BECOMING ANOREXICS”. While there have been several reports indicating that the number of men with eating disorders has been on the rise, I was surprised to see this article in a major men’s magazine. How big is this issue?

 

In the last few years I have observed some subtle changes in the behaviour of men in general towards food. It seems more men are drinking diet soft drinks. I hear more men ordering “skinny” drinks at Starbucks (hold the whip!) or putting artificial sweeteners in their drinks. A lot of my male friends choose salad instead of fries as their side dish. At the last wedding attended, my fiancée and I were seated at a table with four male firefighters. These men were young, thin and appeared to be in good shape. Yet for some reason all four of them were on the low-carb “Southbeach Diet”. I watched with fascination as they removed the single crouton from the soup course, refused the pasta salad, and carefully removed the layer of breading from the fish. I decided not to mention that the 12 vodka sodas they each downed contained carbohydrates. I figured they would throw them up imminently. At another dinner I attended, a male guest questioned why both potatoes and rice were served: “Who serves 2 carbs??” In a female, this behaviour would likely not have even raised an eyebrow. In these cases I found it bizarre and off-putting. Yet I wouldn’t have suspected any of these men to have an eating disorder until I read this article.

 

As a woman recovering from an eating disorder I know that the triggers for anorexia and bulimia are complicated. However it has been shown that the pressures placed on women to conform to the media and societal ideal of perfection can certainly be a contributing factor. There was a time when this was a concern of women almost exclusively. In The Beauty Myth first published in 1990 Naomi Wolf writes of women’s magazines:

“Since self-hatred artificially inflates the demand and the price, the overall message to women from their magazines must remain…negative not positive. Hence the hectoring tone that no other magazines use to address adults with money in their pockets: do’s and dont’s that scold, insinuate, and condescend. The same tone in a men’s magazine-do invest in tax-free bonds; don’t vote Republican-is unthinkable.”

And:

“Unfortunately, the beauty backlash is spread and reinforced by the cycles of self-hatred provoked in women by the advertisements, photo features, and beauty copy in the glossies. These make up the beauty index, which women scan as anxiously as men scan stock reports.”

20 years later, the content of men’s magazines very closely imitates that of most women’s publications. Magazines such as GQ, Details, Maxim and Nylon Man have numerous sartorial recommendations for the stylish modern man, reinforced by photo spreads of young, fit male models. Articles detail what’s new in the worlds of technology, music, art and books, and ensure men feel sufficiently mediocre if these prizes are not acquired. Advertisements convey the quintessential male specimen, lean men in slim-cut clothing or topless displaying bulging pectoral, abdominal, and bicep muscles. Most months feature diet and fitness advice to help men look more like the sculpted, photoshopped gods gracing the glossy pages. If looking at an Armani underwear ad featuring David Beckham is the male equivalent of women having to look at a Victoria’s Secret ad featuring Giselle Bundchen then I have no problem grasping the concept of male eating disorders.

 

The article in GQ magazine reports some surprising statistics. The author, Nathaniel Penn, reports that 20% of anorexics are men, or to put it in perspective for those that aren’t great at math 1 in 5. This is up from 5% (1 in 20) only 10 years ago, and the number is increasing. It appears that men develop eating disorders for the same reasons as women. So why has there been such an increase in the number of cases? A person can be predisposed to developing an eating disorder but never actually develop the disease because they never experience a trigger. Is it simply that, as discussed above, western culture has evolved to a point where men are facing many of the same societal pressures that women have faced for decade? This is likely only a part of it.

 

An article in Details magazine published November 2011 titled “America’s New Male Body Obsession” showcased 40 images that changed the way men viewed their bodies. These images are meant to illustrate how the male ideal has changed over the last several years as well as how much more focused men have become on their physiques. Included are: Mark Wahlberg’s notorious Calvin Klein ad, Brad Pitt’s very toned body in Fight Club, Mark Jacob’s remarkable weight loss, Daniel Craig, the author of The Ultimate New York Diet, a bottle of Michelob Light beer, a picture of body wax, etc. Looking at People Magazine’s Sexiest Men list, essentially all of the men topping the list had a lean, athletic physique and are very well groomed: Ryan Gosling, Justin Theroux, Chris Evans, and the winner Bradley Cooper to name a few. Topping the music charts are songs by Fun, Maroon 5, Neon Trees and Owl City, indie and alternative musicians who insist on looking like starving artists no matter how successful they get, in skintight size 27 jeans and American Apparel deep V’s. The media and entertainment industries are screaming to men that 0% body fat and a 6-pack are essential for health and happiness. And apparently they are listening.

 

In a March 24th 2012 article on CNN.com Michael Addis, a professor of psychology at Clark University noted “male college students in his classes have changed and adapted to shifting cultural norms. In recent years, more of them spend time in the gym, focus on their appearance and monitor body mass.” He says “As women gain more financial power in society, men are expected to bring more to the table…In addition to being financially successful, they need to be well-groomed, in good shape, emotionally skilled in relationships and the emphasis on looking good is just part of the bigger package…” So a threat to male masculinity is motivating men to adopt behaviors traditionally attributed to women such as dieting and excessive exercise? Not according to some psychologists who believe men are actually trying to look more masculine by developing an obsession with muscle definition and fitness.

 

Clearly the reasons men develop eating disorders can be multifold and will be different for each person. Unfortunately, in males the disease often goes undiagnosed, at least until the patient is very ill, because doctors often won’t suspect anorexia in a male patient. Also, men are less likely to seek help due to the stigma of the disease, and the belief that it is primarily a female disease. As a result men on average will suffer with the disease longer than females, an average of 8 years. Many treatment facilities don’t admit male patients. These factors combined can be deadly, since according to the article in GQ as well as several other sources, the mortality rate of anorexia is up to 10%.

 

Most women know what it’s like to struggle with our body image. Therefore we may be in an opportune position to recognize if a man in our life is struggling with some of the same issues. It may be easier for him to talk to someone who can be empathetic rather than his male friends who he may feel aren’t experiencing the same pressures and insecurities. And the next time you find yourself worrying about what a man thinks of you, remember, he’s probably worrying about the same thing. So give yourself a break and give him one too. Nobody’s perfect.

 

 

The Incredible Shrinking Brides!

June 22, 2012

Tommy Europe and Nadeen Boman of ‘Bulging Brides’ on Slice Network
Source:tvlistings.zap2it.com

A couple of years ago I was addicted to the show ‘Bulging Brides’ on the Slice channel. The show follows women as they struggle to  lose weight in order to fit into their wedding dress, which they have purchased one to several sizes too small, apparently as a type of sadistic motivation to push themselves towards some perceived bridal ideal. Pushed to their physical breaking point by ex-CFL football player turned personal trainer Tommy Europe and starving after having their kitchens robbed of all comfort food by the show’s nutritionist these women are so determined to walk down the aisle in said dress that they are willing to miss social functions, get up at the crack of dawn to exercise, give up precious sugary sweets, and put up with being berated by Mr. Europe for (stupidly) breaking any of the endless rules (on camera). Most of them eventually do squeeze themselves into the prized dress, often just barely, leaving me feeling nostalgic for a nice Bratwurst and also pondering the tensile strength of satin and chiffon.

Just a few more inches and the dress should zip up!!
Source:fitnessmagazine.com

The show eventually got tedious to watch, and I haven’t seen an episode since, although the website indicates it is still airing new episodes.  Other shows of the same genre have also popped up, ‘Bridal Bootcamp’ and ‘Shedding for the Wedding’ come to mind, which similarly target the extra pounds holding women back from being the perfect bride on their special day. While most women do not document their journey on TV, it is certainly not unusual for women to obsess about their appearance as their wedding approaches. We live in a society where as little girls we are raised to believe that this day is supposed to be the most important of our lives. I know more than a few women who spent more time with their personal trainers than their fiancees in the weeks before their weddings. Strapless dresses mean shoulders need toning, tight bodices require a chiseled waist. Donning a bikini on the honeymoon? A whole body transformation is in order. Currently a bride-to-be myself I made a promise to myself that I would not give into the madness. I have already ordered my wedding dress. I did a novel thing and ordered it in my size, though the salesgirl was kind enough to point out that the bust would need to be taken in substantially. Likely the hips too. Apparently dresses are generally sewn in an hourglass shape and not straight up and down as I seem to be built. My wedding is in the winter, directly after the holiday season. It would show a high degree of self-loathing if I were to attempt any type of diet and/or exercise plan during this time ripe with merriment and excess. One thing I have learned after struggling to overcome an eating disorder is that allowing how you look and how much you weigh to define how you feel and your sense of accomplishment and believing others will judge you solely on these superficial traits will leave you constantly striving for an unachievable ideal that grows more distant as you get closer to it. I would love more toned shoulders for my lovely strapless dress, but I know myself well enough to know it’s a slippery slope down from there to obsession and I don’t have time to train for a Ms. Female Bodybuilder of the Year competition right now, what with a wedding to plan and all. So I’ll just stick to my regular routine and look like me on my wedding day, with a different hairdo and a beautiful gown. That I can zip up.

With enough time and body oil I feel I could definitely give Kim Chizevsky a run for her money!
Source:www.do-while.com

Thanks, Guilt and Pity (But no thanks for guilt or pity)

March 31, 2012

My Oma-Would you want to make this woman sad??

Working in a hospital I am surrounded by the ailing and afflicted. I can’t say I am desensitized to suffering. I feel for many of those who are battling painful, frightening, and possibly life-threatening  conditions, as well as those who love and care for them. However when everyone you come into contact with has some type of malady, you do begin to reserve your sympathy and emotional energy for those who are truly in agony in order to preserve your sanity. Every so often I meet a person who touches me and I can’t help being drawn into their pain. My father once told me never to feel sorry for other people. I understand what he was trying to tell me. He isn’t a heartless person without concern for his fellow man. But rationally speaking,  feeling sad for others can accomplish nothing but just that: making you sad. Feeling pity for another person is passive rather than active, and actually can harm someone more than it can help them by further validating and solidifying their role as a victim when in fact most people don’t want to be viewed in this light at all. However it tends to be human nature for our hearts to go out to the weak and the suffering.

Today as I was sitting and eating lunch in the foyer of the hospital, a lovely elderly lady started to chat me up about nothing in particular. As we continued to talk she told me that her husband had just had a stroke and was getting out of the hospital that day at 4pm. He would require a home care nurse since he couldn’t walk properly yet, he had difficulty swallowing, his speech was garbled and it was unclear how much function he would regain. She teared up a little as she spoke, and I must admit my eyes got a little watery too. She wasn’t asking for sympathy, it was evident she felt alone and was reaching for someone, anyone to talk to. It was right about then that a young man about my age in a wheelchair approached a ramp leading up to the café. He was attempting to maneuver himself at the correct angle to enable him to go up the ramp and was having quite a bit of difficulty. He finally realized this feat, only to have to get up the actual ramp, which seemed to give him some trouble. I saw that there were many people watching him, and it seemed as if quite a few looked poised to jump in and push him. No one did though, and I believe it was because he looked so determined wheeling himself up that nobody seemed to know if this was the right thing to do. I assume they were afraid of embarrassing him or insulting him by insinuating he was unable to make it himself. The old woman and I watched him fight his way up the ramp silently, and then I felt her touch my hand with hers. “We are very fortunate” she said. I looked at her, this woman who felt blessed though her husband would very likely never say her name again, and I felt humbled. No, this woman didn’t need my pity. In many ways, she may be better off than I. I’ll explain.

On my way home, I started thinking about all of the little things I take for granted on a daily basis. The fact I have friends and family that love me, I live in a great city, I have a secure job and a roof over my head. I take for granted my health, and that I have enough food to eat. It may sound repetitive to talk about how deplorable it is that in North America portion sizes have increased 2-5 times since 1970 while obesity rates are epidemic, and at the same time there are people in the world still dying of starvation. But regardless of how often you hear it, it is still wrong. I am a second generation Canadian. My grandparents lived in Europe during WWII when people often didn’t have enough food to fill their stomachs. When they moved to Canada, they were extremely poor and had to work harder than I or my children will ever understand to make a life for themselves. To people like them and countless others who came to this country for a better life, being able to feed your family well was no small blessing, a validation for all of their tribulations. There was a time in history when being plump was a sign of high social standing. The poor could not afford good food and so were thin and wasted looking. It is alarming how things have changed such that now “thin is in”. In fact, with fast food and pre-packaged food usually costing less than fresh fruit and vegetables and lean meats, those in lower socioeconomic classes are more likely to be overweight than the middle and upper class in today’s day and age.

When you ask people what’s really important in life, one of the most popular answers is being healthy. Another is having enough food to eat. However, at any given time it is estimated that 45% of women are dieting.  At some point in their lives, most women will actively deprive themselves of food. While not all diets are harmful, and in some cases losing weight will improve health, many women engage in practices that are potentially dangerous under the guise of health, such as fad diets, detoxes, fasts or juice and soup diets. In the poorest nations such as India and northern Africa, the average caloric intake is between 1400-1900 calories daily for women. The daily requirement for most women is about 2000, with about 900 being the amount needed for human functioning. Many diets today recommend caloric intakes of 1500 calories daily or less making their devotees at least if not more malnourished than many “starving” women in 3rd world countries. When you think of the focus we put on our bodies in this light, it seems so shallow, doesn’t it?

I may sound judgemental but that is not my intention. I do not mean to be the pot that calls the kettle black. As a woman who has battled an eating disorder since a teenager I am no stranger to body image issues or depriving myself of food. I have likely binged and purged enough food to feed a small starving village. When I think about how important I once thought that being thin was or how happy I thought that losing 5 more pounds would make me it seems so irrational now. I know that an eating disorder is a disease and I have the insight now to understand that it isn’t really about food or how you look, but I still carry around a lot of guilt about the damage I did to my body and what I took for granted during the time I was abusing myself. One image that stays in my mind is the look of concern and pain on my Oma’s face whenever I would go over to her place for dinner and I would avoid eating the things she would prepare for me and try to shovel onto my plate in true mennonite fashion. For her, cooking for her family is showing love. I’m not sure how much she knows about my eating disorder, or even if she could fathom such a thing, but I know she realized I was sick by how frightened and sad she looked. Even now, every time I go there she is so concerned about what I can and can’t eat, and if I’m OK. I was relieved when finally the last time I saw her she deemed me “good and healthy”. Someone like her could never understand why a person would deprive themselves of food on purpose. She has seen what real hunger looks like. Her idea of a light meal is Rollkuchen (fried bread made of flour and whipping cream). Food nourishes your body and keeps you alive. It is vital to survival. It also can be an excuse to bring family together. My Oma grew up in a different time, but as I was reminded today, it seems we could all learn a thing or two from our elders.

THE ISRAELIS ARE WINNING

March 28, 2012

Ad banned in the UK for "highly visible ribs"

 

On Monday, Israel put into effect a law regulating the use of extremely thin models within the Israeli fashion industry. The law bans fashion houses and advertisers from using models with a BMI less than the World Health Organization standard of normal (18.5). Models must provide a medical report no less than 3 months old at every shoot or fashion show stating she is not malnourished. The law also forces advertisers to put a disclaimer on any image that has been edited or altered in way which makes a model appear thinner so that young girls and women will know the image is not realistic. This rule does not apply to foreign publications imported into the country. The legislation comes as a response to the relatively high incidence of eating disorders in the country, where approximately 2% of girls age 14-18 have anorexia or bulimia. This is similar to rates in other developed countries. While Israel isn’t exactly a mecca of high fashion, this ban has created a buzz all over the world, and we can only hope other markets will follow suit. It shows that someone is paying attention to the effect the fashion industry has on its consumers, and how the fashion industry responds will show how much accountability they feel to the people who perpetuate and escalate its growth, both the models who sell the clothing and the women who buy them.

This is not the first we’ve heard of a country or city putting restrictions on models used in shows. In 2006, in Madrid, the Spanish Association of Fashion Designers was the first body to put a ban on overly thin models. While not a law, there was a guideline put in place that models have a BMI of at least 18. At that time, Cathy Gould of New York’s Elite modeling agency accused the agency of using the fashion agency as a scapegoat for anorexia and bulimia. The ban in fact originated after backlash following the death of a 22 year-old anorexic Uruguayan model of heart failure after starving herself for a show, and shortly thereafter the death of a Brazilian model of complications of anorexia. Following fashion week in Madrid, Milan followed suit that same year. In Milan models were required to produce a medical certificate declaring them healthy with no eating disorder, and stating a BMI of at least 18.5. The models also needed to be at least 16 years of age. This was also not an outright ban, but a guideline requiring “self-regulation by the fashion houses”. Even Mario Boselli, the head of Italy’s National Fashion Chamber did not seem to take it very seriously, stating that only “maybe one girl in a hundred’ in the shows was too skinny. In fact, the average model is 5’11’’ and 117 pounds. This gives her a BMI of 16.3. She would have to weigh 133 pounds to achieve a “normal” BMI of 18.5. The average US woman is 5’4’’ and weighs 140 pounds and has a BMI of 24.  Designers had mixed opinions about the ban. Many supported it, such as Emanuel Ungaro designer Giles Deacon who said  ”At a certain period in time, the fashion industry was portraying this image of a totally unrealistic woman, women who are not allowed to be themselves. It’s just all a bit wrong.” Many did not approve of the change. Outspoken Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld said that fashion is about “dreams and illusions, and no one wants to see round women.” Oh, Mr. Lagerfeld. There are no words.

There are many arguments that have been made against regulating the fashion industry. Some may say BMI is not a great indicator of health status or nutritional status as it is unreliable. It is true that BMI calculations can be unreliable in some cases, for example in children or the elderly, people who are very muscular, or women for example with very large breasts, or even amputees. I can’t think of a fashion model who meets any of these criteria. Some argue that there are women who are just naturally very thin and we shouldn’t punish them for this. I agree that there are those women who are naturally tall and skinny. We all have those girlfriends who for as long as we’ve known them have been twigs, eating twice as much as anyone you know and never being able to gain a pound. That girl everyone tells “You should be a model” even when she’s in her awkward ugly duckling stage because girls that tall and skinny are always models. But these girls are few and far between, and even these girls are very often not as bony as the girls we see on the runway. Should a girl like this be excluded because her BMI is 18.3 instead of 18.5? Maybe not. But there has to be a line drawn somewhere. And as for Mr. Lagerfeld’s  statement that women like to look at “illusions” on the runway? I think that most women would rather see clothing on a real woman. When a woman looks at a size zero model wearing an outfit and she is a size 10, she has no “allusions” that outfit will look the same on her. (Hahaha)

Fast forward to now and we have actual government legislation in place in a country protecting models in an industry that up to now has promoted an unhealthy body image, as well as helping shield impressionable young girls and teenagers from images of unachievable ideals. There is some rumbling of similar legislation being discussed in France and in the US. An ad was recently banned in the UK for portraying a model with “highly visible ribs”. Australia has come up with a new code of conduct for the fashion industry. If key recommendations are met, such as not using female models that are excessively thin or male models that are excessively muscular, not using cosmetic surgery or rapid weight loss ads in magazines, putting disclosures on altered photos, not using models under 16 and stores stocking a wide variety of sizes then the fashion labels, modeling agencies, and magazines which comply will be awarded with the youth minister’s stamp of approval. We are not anywhere close to being there yet, but people are recognizing there is a problem and talking about it, and that is a good step in the right direction.

Are you skinnier in the morning?

March 19, 2012

Can your body really change in one day??

A friend said to me yesterday: “I think I’m skinnier in the morning”. I can’t tell you how many times I have been on the receiving end of some variation of this sentence. “My body looks better in the morning before I eat anything”, “I look skinny in the morning, but then I’m fat again at the end of the day”, “I think I gain 10 pounds during the day”…..It begs the question: Is it these women’s waistlines or their self-confidence that is fluctuating so wildly throughout the day?

 

First of all I would like to talk about the physiological. Overnight you obviously don’t eat or drink anything for the amount of time you are asleep, usually about 6-8 hours. So when you wake up you are in the fasted state and often slightly dehydrated. This is because as you sleep you lose water through respiration (small water droplets are lost in your breath) and transpiration (you lose water through your skin). Water weight loss overnight can be as much as 2-3 pounds or even more if there is a lot of perspiration. Also, a lot of digestion occurs overnight, and any food in the stomach moves further along the digestive tract, which can give the appearance of a “flatter” stomach. When dehydrated, a lean person’s muscles can appear more defined which makes them appear more toned (this is a common trick bodybuilders will use pre-competition). This may be a reason women like their bodies best first thing in the morning. During the day as food and fluids are consumed the water weight lost overnight is regained, Women may feel that their stomachs are no longer “flat” once it has been filled with food (whether this is true or imagined) and sometimes the food consumed, for example a high-sodium meal, can lead to water being retained and the appearance of a larger stomach due to bloating. Weight fluctuations throughout one day can be up to 5 pounds, and this is mainly due to water retention and loss. Certain factors, such as eating a very large meal before bed, constipation, and water retention can in fact cause people to weigh more or be very bloated in the morning. However, it does in fact seem as though some women may appear “skinnier” in the morning, even if this is only due to normal physiological changes that occur in everyone and in no way represent any actual fat loss overnight.

 

So are there psychological factors involved? Before looking at any data, I want to shed some personal light on the matter. When in therapy for my eating disorder, a recurring discussion theme was that of control. A theory about eating disorders is that often they are triggered by emotional or traumatic events and that women use the eating disorder as a coping mechanisms. If you can’t control what’s going on in your life, at least you can control what you put into your body. In group therapy, I learned a common goal for women with eating disorders (including myself) was to eat as little as possible, or that only certain foods were allowed. If you ate “too much” or something unacceptable, you had failed. However, each morning was a fresh start. In the morning you were not yet defeated, you had a new chance to stick to your plan and you felt revitalized. I am not insinuating that when a woman says she feels her “skinniest” in the morning that she has an eating disorder. My point is that I think that for all women, each morning is a clean slate. Ideally you are rested and revived, your mind is alert and the emotional tone for the day is still to be determined as no events have occurred to influence it. So whatever your goal is for the day, it seems within reach. Studies have shown that mood influences body image. A 1995 study in Behavior Therapy titled ‘Body image disturbance, memory bias and body dysphoria: Effects of negative mood induction’ showed that when women were induced to be in a negative mood, they perceived their body size to be larger than it currently was and had increased body dysphoria. A 1992 study in Behavior Research and Therapy showed similar data. So perhaps throughout the day, women’s body image worsens due to daily stressors and our emotional responses to them, and the morning is the only time we are free from this effect.

 

Another thing I learned in group therapy is that it for women with eating disorders, the feeling of having no food in your stomach is the feeling of success. It is a comfort. Even as I write this statement, I know it will be hard to comprehend and shocking to many. It’s almost metaphoric really, because when you are in that place you feel empty in all respects because you have isolated yourself and your whole life has become consumed by your disease. Even sometimes today after waking up with that hollowness in my stomach that I used to relish, when I eat my first meal, and I can feel my stomach filling up and pressing just slightly harder on the waist of my pants, I can’t help but feeling like I’m suddenly heavier. I no longer strive to feel hungry, but sometimes disordered thoughts like this interrupt my life. It makes me wonder if other women have these thoughts? When a woman says she feels “skinnier in the morning” is it partially because she hasn’t filled her stomach with food and when you feel hungry, you have an artificial feeling of lightness?  Does simply feeling satiated make a woman feel heavier?

 

As women go about their day, they are exposed to hundreds if not thousands of media images. Many of these images depict artificial, retouched models and actresses representing what the “ideal” woman should be, and it is an unattainable goal for most if not all women to achieve. There are over a hundred studies proving the negative effects of these extremely thin images on a clear majority of adolescents and women. Not only do women feel greater body dissatisfaction upon exposure, but they also report more depression, stress, insecurity, guilt and shame. Many studies have shown that when body image and body perception are measured right before and right after exposure to media images of very thin models, women will report a more negative body image and falsely perceive themselves as heavier than is accurate. So it’s possible that exposure to so many of these images throughout the day, can contribute to a more negative body image later in the day vs. first thing in the morning.

 

I’m sure there are many other factors that can affect why women may feel differently about themselves at different times of the day. Women are complicated, and body image and self-esteem are very complex, multi-faceted issues. However, it does not appear that beyond any normal physiological changes, women are any “skinnier” in the morning. However, sometimes by the end of the day a woman may feel like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders, so she sure may feel heavier at the end of the day.

IS IT BETTER TO BE BLACK THAN WHITE?

March 14, 2012

On February 27th the Washington Post published the results of a study showing that although black women were on average heavier than white women, they had significantly higher levels of self-esteem. 41% of average or thin white women reported having high self-esteem. However 66% of overweight or obese (according to government standards) black women reported having high self esteem. The study also reports that 28% of black women think that being physically attractive is “very important” vs 11% of white women. This would seem to indicate that black women don’t believe that being thin is as strongly linked to attractiveness as white women do. The article cites one reason for the study’s findings as being the mainstream media’s traditional exclusion of African-American women from it’s demographic, leaving them less affected by the images of extreme thinness surrounding them. It is true that historically fashion and advertising has been geared mainly towards a white audience. In a February 22 2011 article in the Guardian UK edition titled ‘Fashion probably is a bit racist’,  Premier Modeling Agency founder Carole White is quoted as saying about the fashion industry “It’s driven by what sells, and, in general, white blonde girls sell, that’s the mindset. In actual fact, black girls do sell but they’re not given as many openings. It is safer to go with a white girl, and in a recession people are very conservative.” The media role models that black women tend to look up to and admire are women who embrace their curves, musical icons and voluptuous actresses, and African-American culture encourages a curvy, healthy shape. Therefore black women tend to embrace a larger frame than many white women strive for. The results from the Washington Post survey are consistent with similar earlier studies. A study published November 1992 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders also concluded that blacks had better body image attitudes and had body size ideals that were less thin and more congruent with their own current perceived size. They also had less strict criteria for perceiving body fatness. In another study published March 2010 in the Journal of Black Studies, 2 sets of photos were shown to 31 white and 30 African-American undergraduate students. One set of photos showed slender white female models representing the “media ideal” and the other set showed white female models representing an “average” build. Caucasian models were used as they represented the majority of images in magazines and catalogs. When white women viewed the set of slides showing the “ideal” photos they reported more body dissatisfaction than before viewing them. They felt better about their bodies after seeing the “average” photos. African-American students reported no change in body satisfaction after viewing either set of photos. Because the study didn’t look at how black women felt after looking at unrealistic images of other black women, the study could not conclude that African-American women were immune to all media influences,however they did not seem to have the same body standards for themselves as white women which seemed to be strongly influence by mainstream media.

While this all seems like great news for black women, no race/ethnicity or class of people is immune to eating disorders. In the US an estimated 10 million females are battling eating disorders. In Canada 1.5% of women aged 15-24 have an eating disorder. While there is no clear data on the prevalence of eating disorders among the various races, a study published in the Archives in Family Medicine in 2000 found that black women were just as likely as white women to report recurrent binge eating and vomiting, and were actually more likely to abuse laxatives or diuretics. And there is evidence that the rate of eating disorders in minority women is increasing, according to a 2005 NY Times article entitled ‘Blacks Join the Eating-Disorder Mainstream’. In the article a Dr. Brooks states “We’re noticing a trend of more severe eating disorders among African-American girls”.However data is often skewed as minority women are less likely to seek treatment. Dr. Ruth Striegel-Moore published a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2003 showing young black women were as likely as white women to report binge eating. During her research she also found that compared to 28% of white women, only 5% of black women reported having received treatment. There has also been a push within the last decade for companies to diversify their media campaigns to include a wider range of models more representative of consumer culture. Unfortunately, the models used to epitomize ethnic beauty are nothing like the buxom, curvy, proud women so revered in African-American culture, but instead the same skeletal remains of women that have been walking runways and gracing magazine covers for years, only a different color. So, in effect, the more black women become integrated into the mainstream, the more pressure they may feel to fit a beauty standard that seems to narrow every day.

On the complete other end of the spectrum, the article in the Washington Post alludes to another issue affecting black (and in fact all North American) women today. The article describes how by black women being happier and more accepting of fuller figures, they have put themselves on a “slippery slope toward higher rates of obesity”. According to current statistics, 36.2% of US women and 23.9% of Canadian women are considered obese (BMI 30 or greater). In the US, African-American women have the highest rates of being overweight or obese than any group, with 4/5 black women being overweight or obese. Black women have a 60% higher chance of being obese than white women. From 2005-2008 78% of black women and 59.6% of white women were overweight (BMI 25 or greater), with 51 of the black women and 33.1% of the white women being considered obese. Both genetic predisposition and high obesity rates put African-American women at high risk for many serious medical conditions. 13% of African-American’s over 20 have diabetes. There appears to be a genetic link in this population, however with lifestyle interventions, one of them being weight loss, many people can delay of even halt the progression of diabetes. 40% of African-Americans also have hypertension or high blood pressure, and it tends to appear earlier in life and be more severe than in caucasians. High blood pressure increases the risk of peripheral arterial disease (PAD), blindness, kidney failure, congestive heart failure, heart attack and stroke. PAD is a result of fatty deposits that limit blood flow to the limbs and is more common in African-Americans than any other ethnic group. Risk factors are increased blood pressure and diabetes, and PAD can result in limb amputation. Obesity greatly increases the risk of all of these conditions and can significantly shorten a woman’s life.

So clearly there is a dilemma. The study in the Washington Post tells us that though on average heavier, African-American women seem to be more content with their bodies than white women, and this is something to be proud of. On the flip side, statistics show that the majority of African-American women in the United States are overweight or obese, potentially putting their health at serious risk, which is something that needs to change. Adjuvantly, eating disorders are prevalent among North American women, affecting women of all ages and races, and are also life-threatening, with the prevalence in black women increasing. In the Washington Post study 90% of black women thought it was ‘very important’ to live a healthy lifestyle, so clearly these women need to strike a balance. I think that the women who can celebrate themselves no matter what their size and resist the media influences that tell us that all women should fit into one mold should be applauded, and in fact envy these women at times. However I think it is also important not to forget that part of loving and respecting your body is keeping it healthy and working well so you can continue to live and enjoy life and flaunt the body you love. The media would like women to believe that a healthy weight range fluctuates within only about 5 pounds (between skinny and thin) but in reality there is a relatively large range of sizes that are considered healthy. So take note: no need to lose those curves!!