Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Comments to the Federal Task Force on Childhood Obesity: 'Body dissatisfaction' as a cultural norm

By Joanne Ikeda

A few months ago I met with a group of mothers of young children.  They asked me to come and talk to them about feeding their families.  I am not sure how they found me, but quite likely it was through a search on the internet.  I am a faculty member in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at UC Berkeley, and my area of expertise is pediatric overweight.   All of the media attention focused on pediatric obesity has raised parental awareness of this problem, and now along with ensuring that a child gets into an Ivy League University, most parents are burdened with the responsibility of ensuring that their child does not get fat.  Parents take this responsibility very seriously but most of them are confused about the mixed messages they are getting and they are worried that they are sending mixed messages to their children.

The most poignant example of this was the voluptuous and attractive woman who was concerned because one day her 5 year old said that she never wanted to get fat when looking at herself in the mirror.  While in line at the supermarket, the same 5 year old pointed to a woman on the cover of Vogue magazine and said, “Look how beautiful that lady is, Mom!  Isn’t she pretty? I want to look just like her when I grow up.”   Mom didn’t know how to respond, especially in light of the fact that she wears a size 16, so she said, “Yes, she is beautiful,” and left it at that.  Now, Mom was saying, “I’m worried.  She’s so young.  She’s too young to be worried about her body size.”  I almost felt like responding, “At what age do you think she will be old enough to take on this task?” but of course I didn’t.  Instead, I listened with a great deal of sympathy recognizing that this woman was trying to deal with a problem that has become endemic in our society – that of body dissatisfaction.

According to cultural anthropologists, body dissatisfaction has become a “cultural norm” among women and girls in this country, and is afflicting men and boys in greater and greater numbers.   Last year I met with a group of UC Berkeley freshman, and the topic of “body bashing” came up.  Both males and females admitted that they often sat around with their friends and disparaged their own bodies as well as the bodies of others.  When I suggested that the next time this happened, they refrain from participating and even try to change the discussion topic, they all looked at me as if I was from Mars.  Admittedly, as a 62 year old woman, it is difficult for me to understand why anyone would want to engage in a diversion that is so obviously hurtful and damaging to everyone involved.  But the students didn’t see it that way – for them it was a rite of passage; something they expected to do and did do.  My concern is, will they ever mature to the point where they can appreciate and value the bodies they have?  Sadly, these students failed to understand how they have been conditioned by our society to think that body dissatisfaction is acceptable and appropriate.  No one has ever challenged them to question their attitudes and actions.

On the other hand, the mothers I talked with recognized the link between self-esteem and body esteem.  They understood that their children will have difficulty liking, accepting, and respecting themselves if they are unhappy with their bodies?   But they wondered how to promote and sustain body satisfaction when the danger of becoming fat/obese is a constant threat.  What if we liked our bodies just the way they are and helped our children do the same?   What if we didn’t expect to look like the people on the magazine covers and didn’t promote that expectation in our children?   What would happen then?  Would everyone everywhere become fat!  Oh, horrors!  Then we wouldn’t have anyone we could legitimately discriminate against and stigmatize.  There would be no one to feel superior to because, “I may be fat, but I’m not as fat as she is!”  People couldn’t make snide remarks about “pretty faces on bodies that need to lose weight.”  We wouldn’t be able to blame the fat people for driving up health care costs in this country.   On the bright side, the weight loss industry would prosper; diet books would continue to be on every best seller booklist;  and bariatric surgeons would be in high demand.

Seriously, what does happen when children, teenagers, and adults love and appreciate their bodies?   Do they neglect those bodies by feeding them junk?  Do they fail to appreciate the “high” of being physically active?  Do they practice unsafe sex?  Fail to wash their hands after using the rest room?   Rarely get enough sleep?  Never wash their bodies or brush their teeth?   Of course not!  Loving one’s body, motivates people to take care of their bodies.  People with high body esteem and self-esteem want to keep their bodies healthy.    They view themselves as valuable people who have something to contribute to society, and they want be around as along as possible to make that contribution.

Human bodies come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes.  We intuitively know there will always be small people and tall people, big people and little people, fat people and thin people.  We know that the “ideal body” is something conjured up by the people on Madison Avenue who have ulterior motives, almost all of which are financial.  We can reject the superficial value system that leads us to believe that beauty is flawless skin, silky, shining hair, long legs, puffy lips, and an emaciated, cellulite-free body.   We can promote an alternative definition of beauty.

In answering the Mom who wanted to know what to say to her daughter who thought the woman on the cover of Vogue was beautiful, I said, “Tell her you don’t know if that woman is beautiful or not.  You have never met her.  You don’t know if she is kind or cruel.  You don’t know if she treats others with respect or disdain.  You can’t tell if she is considerate and compassionate or mean and selfish?”   These are the things you need to know before you can say whether or not she is beautiful.