So how perfect (skinny) are you?

December 20, 2007

What do Hollywood stars Nicole Richie, Amy Winehouse, Kate Bosworth and Paris Hilton have in common? They have all embraced the ‘size-zero’ lifestyle, defining the world’s new in look and leading millions of others into paths of self destruction attempting to achieve the look. The apparent message to them is simple: being hyperthin is the standard for a good looking, attractive and successful woman.

   While cases of obesity continue to rise globally, the teenage obsession with ‘living up to the standard’ is making anorexia an equally troubling issue.

   ‘It’s a paradoxical issue,’ says Dr Omar Rahman, pro-vice chancellor of Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB), and research fellow for psychiatry in Harvard Medical School. ‘On the one hand, the media is promoting junk food, leading to obesity, and on the other it is also promoting a skinny image as the essential look.’

   ‘I hope I can look like one of them one day — as thin and as famous as they are. That way, people will value me more; my friends will like me more,’ says fourteen-year-old Dhaka schoolgoer Faiza. Her cheeks cling taut on the bones, and her feeble hands make a desperate attempt to hold on to the cup of tea she sips from. She speaks of the models and starlets bombarded on her by the media.

   Fifteen-year-old Tashmia went through severe depression for not being skinny; her friends at school teased her for being chubby and not fashionably thin. In reality, she was a healthy girl, but soon, with loss of confidence and the feeling of inferiority, Tashmia started starving herself in a desperate attempt to lose weight. Although she did lose weight, the psychological impact of the period and the necessity of being thin would soon be apparent. She is convinced that she is fat, even when far below a healthy weight.

   What Tashmia is suffering from is in simple terms, called: anorexia. According to Dr Omar, anorexia is an eating disorder where people starve themselves to fit a thin image. Studies show that it usually afflicts young people around the onset of puberty; they tend to suffer from extreme weight loss, usually leading to weights 15 per cent below the person’s normal body weight.

   ‘Anorexics have an intense fear of becoming fat. It mainly occurs among women who are continually under the stress of having to look good. Such cases are much less common among men as their first and foremost social need is how much they earn rather than how good they look’, says Dr Omar.

   ‘These women suffering from anorexia continue to think they are overweight even after they become extremely thin or very ill,’ he says.

   He goes on to point out the influence of media on food habits and lifestyles. ‘It’s not only in Bangladesh; it’s a global issue that the media plays a significant role in people developing eating disorders.’ He relates this to an important study by Anne Becker, physiatrist at Harvard Medical School. ‘Until the late 80’s, there had never been any significant study done on such behaviours and the changing perception of beauty. It was Becker’s study in the 80’s and later on in 90’s that opened the doors to it.

   Becker’s study was carried out in the Pacific Island nation of Fiji, initially during the early 80s, before the introduction of television. Back then, it was believed that the bigger and chubbier a woman, the prettier and more attractive she was.

   However, after the introduction of television, around 38 months after the earlier survey, there was a dramatic change in perceptions by the inhabitants. ‘While a large percentage of women were unhappy with their bodies, teenagers were taking desperate steps to become thin, even by vomiting,’ says Dr Omar. ‘These attempts can take severe forms — induced vomiting, drug abuse, use of laxatives, excessive dieting, etc.’

   Dr Omar reiterates that, with globalisation and the strong role of media, the images presented have become almost a statement of identity. According to him, it is a vicious cycle — striving to reach the idealised image, failing to achieve it, and finally leading to dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. ‘It’s sad that a large percentage of women feel miserable about the way the look. They constantly feel that they are falling behind or they do not have what it takes. All of these factors often lead to terrible forms of frustration’.

   ‘It is the teenagers who are prone to lower self-esteem. There are many cases to illustrate the desperate and dangerous methods by which they seek the idolised body type,’ says Dr Farzana Islam, a specialist in child mental health at the Dhaka Shishu Hospital. ‘But once they fail to achieve it, they are likely to be frustrated, and get involved in drugs and alcohol.’

   Experts point out that showbiz and the increasing promotion of glamour in Bangladesh can be dangerous for the young. ‘It’s a worrying issue, because globalisation is at its peak; and Bangladesh, like the West, is promoting these models and glamorous personalities who are once again setting a standard for adolescents,’ says Dr Farzana.

   Speaking out Celebrities who admitted to having eating disorders
   Princess Diana
   The late Princess Di battled bulimia for over three years, attributing it to the pressures of her lifestyle. Her public admission of the problem opened the doors for other celebrities to openly talk about their eating disorders.
   Kate Beckinsale
   Announced that she had anorexia at an early age, with her weight dropping down to 32 kilos at the peak.
   Mary-Kate Olsen
   The brunette half of the Olsen teens was seen growing noticeably thinner than her sister, and admitted to having an eating disorder before entering rehab just after her 18th birthday.
   Lindsay Lohan
   Suffered from bulimia and anorexia between 2004 and 2005; blamed it on being overworked and stressed. Was hospitalised before making a full recovery


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