Girls and Dieting, Then and Now

tweensWhen two people share the same article with you and offer it as a topic for your blog, as a blogger, you take it and run with it.

This Wall Street Journal article, Girls and Dieting, Then and Now, came to my attention by Lara and Sarah.

An excerpt:

One day in January 1986, fourth-grade girls at Marie Murphy School in Wilmette, Ill., were called down to the principal’s office.

A stranger was waiting there to ask each girl a question: “Are you on a diet?”

Most of the girls said they were.

“I just want to be skinny so no one will tease me,” explained Sara Totonchi.

“Boys expect girls to be perfect and beautiful,” said Rozi Bhimani. “And skinny.”

…I was the questioner that day. As a young Wall Street Journal reporter, I had gone to a handful of Chicago-area schools to ask 100 fourth-grade girls about their dieting habits. Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco were about to release a study showing 80% of fourth-grade girls were dieting, and I wanted to determine: Was this a California oddity, or had America’s obsession with slimness reached the 60-pound weight class?

My reporting ended up mirroring the study’s results. More than half of the 9-year-old girls I surveyed said they were dieting, and 75%—even the skinniest ones—said they weighed too much. I also spoke to fourth-grade boys and learned what the girls were up against. “Fat girls aren’t like regular girls,” one boy told me. “They aren’t attractive.”

The front-page story helped spark discussions about America’s worship of thinness and its impact on children. It raised the question: Would these girls be burdened by the dieting culture as they grew into women?

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. While none of them descended into eating disorders, some told stories of damaging diets and serious self-esteem issues regarding their weight.

They felt—and recent studies make clear—that the weight-focused pressures on young girls today are even stronger…

Claire, an author and co-blogger at WeAretheRealDeal is quoted as well.

“Compared with the fourth graders of 1986, girls today see body images in ads “that are even further from reality. Retouching is rampant,” says Claire Mysko, author of “You’re Amazing,” a book encouraging self-esteem in girls. She worries that childhood obesity-prevention efforts can make girls obsessive about weight. While these programs are important vehicles to fight a growing problem, “we have to be really careful how we are implementing nutrition and body imaging,” she says.”

It was a great piece, and one that also makes me sad for many reasons, most of all the sentiment that many of today’s youth (much like their mothers, aunts, sisters, grandmothers) feel inadequate and enormous pressure to be thin. This is nothing new, but seeing it spelled out so clearly really resonated with me.

Looking back, in fourth grade, I was dancing, tooling around on the playground with my friends … I wasn’t bombarded with images of celebrities the way tweens and teens are today, and I certainly wasn’t concerned with the size of my thighs or hips.

Thighs meant I could run, do stunts, gymnastics. Hips meant I could give good piggyback rides, dance.

Life was innocent then. And you know what? Maybe I lived in my own little bubble …  but I was happy.

I’m honestly frightened to someday bring children into this world. The best we can do as women is serve as good role models, but even that ins’t foolproof …

How about you? What pressures did you feel at ages 9, 10, 11? Did your feelings change between the tween and teen years? How about high school? Beyond?


12 thoughts on “Girls and Dieting, Then and Now

  1. At age 9 through, well, 15 I was the skinny kid. LIke bony. And short. I got made fun of plenty, but not because I was fat but rather “so short”. I sat in the front row, 4th from the end at my 8th grade graduation because I was the 4th shortest in the grade. BUT, the weight thing was always in the back of my head. I vividly remember my mom always saying “one day, what you eat is going to catch up to you and you’re going to be sorry!” And it did…and now it’s caught up and run away with me.

  2. When I was in grade four I just got made fun of for being short. My `nickname` was shorty. But I was well liked by boys and didn’t feel like I was unattractive. It wasn’t until about grade 8 that I started to not eat properly mostly because my friends were all on a diet of some sort or jsut not eating to lose weight So I joined in and got confused.. body dismorphia came into play for sure. I look at pictures and I was skin and bones but I had no idea. My dad was worried for sure. I remember him trying to get me to eat more. Around grade 9-10 were pretty bad. Then I got a new group of friends and I was a little better. I think for me it was a way to fit in and control my environment. I have always been really focused on how boys percieve me and have been convinced if I wasn’t skinny they wouldn’t like me. It’s a tough idea to shake when that’s the message you get from society. After that it became more disordered but that’s the story of how it started in a very tiny nutshell 😉

  3. I never dieted until senior year of high school. I was “normal”weight up until then but then parties (beer) and late night snack runs to 7-11 caused me to gain weight. I also went on a trip to Europe the summer before senior year (a “teen” tour, anyone remmeber those?) and came back 7 lbs heavier and my clothes were all tight but I wasn’t overly concerned about it and didn’t do anything seriously to try to lose. I gained more in college and then trying to lose that was when the ED kicked in. I kept losing and losing…

    I always had issues with my legs (short,stumpy) that I recall back to 4th or 5th grade but never associated it with overal size or weight. I went on a trip to E

  4. I really don’t remember being self-conscious about my weight until about 8th grade. I was always the tallest of my friends, and I grew pretty quickly right around the start of puberty. (I weighed more in 8th grade than I do now…and was an inch and a half shorter).

    My best friend became really self-conscious of her weight (she was smaller than me), and this triggered me to be conscious of mine. But it really wasn’t until my senior year of HS that my ED set in.

    I really fear for girls nowadays…I am constantly praising my nieces for being good eaters (they love fruits and veggies, thank goodness!) and saying how wonderful it is that they are strong and tall. I never, EVER will comment on my weight around them. My friend’s mom always commented on how she felt fat (she is a size 2-4), and my friend was almost hospitalized because of an eating disorder. I don’t solely blame parents, friends, or society – but all three together can be either a positive thing, or detrimental.

  5. hi! it’s been a while 🙂

    I was a chubby kid and always wished I were thinner – that’s the absolute truth. even without being exposed to what kids are bombarded with today, I knew I was too big.

    However, in my head at that time, thin did not mean skinny. I think things have gone down the extreme route by today’s standards. No longer is thin the goal – but instead it’s SKINNY. these two words have different implications in my book.

  6. Body image issues, sadly, have no age limit. I remember not being personally afflicted with body image/dieting issues in elementary school, but I remember other girls who were. There was something “mature” and “cool” about girls who claimed that they were eating an apple and crackers for lunch as a “diet”…it’s terrifying to think about young girls with these thoughts.

  7. I started dieting in third grade, so this article definitely hit home for me. I went through puberty early and I was the tallest of all the girls in my class (and continued to be until about 7th or 8th grade). I also started to develop breasts. My dieting didn’t become “extreme” until halfway through high school, but my body image started took a serious downfall in elementary school and has never risen.

  8. i’ll echo what Cathy said above…i was bigger than i *knew* i should be, and 3rd or 4th grade is probably when that started. i only remember doing one true “diet”, and that was in high school…some 3-day thing that involved cottage cheese and grapefruit – both foods that i DESPISE – and i think i only made it through about 1/2 a day!!

    i was very conscious of my weight during junior high and high school and always wanted to be smaller. in my mind, being fat was the root of all my problems (bad hair day? must be because i’m fat!) and i just knew that boys didn’t find me attractive because i was overweight. and just for the record, i was probably about a size 13 in high school, so not “obese” by any means. looking back on it now, i think there probably were a few boys here and there that were attracted to me but i wasn’t aware of it because i was so busy feeling negative about my body.

    i can’t imagine the pressure that teenage girls must feel today to be skinny – hip bones have to be poking out of your low-rise jeans or you’re considered fat! just one of the many reasons that you couldn’t pay me enough money to go back and relive my teenage years!!

  9. I have two daughters, ages 4 and almost 2, and reading this freaks me out!

    I was thin growing up, but still got pushed in to the diet mentality by age 13 because I weighed 128 lbs (at 5’8″), while my friends weighed around 100 lbs. It didn’t matter or I didn’t care that my friends were all at least 4 or 5 inches shorter than me. What mattered in my mind was that I was a monster in term of weight and needed to change that.

    As I struggle for my own self-acceptance and love now, how will I teach my children the same? How can I protect them from these feelings and stresses? It really does scare me!

  10. Hi everyone, awful day yesterday with no time to reply individually, but thank you for sharing your stories … it sounds like a lot of readers felt pressure early on.

    Nik–I totally feel you!

  11. No one is ever happy… if you’re fat you want to be skinny, if your skinny you want to be fatter, if you have curly hair you want straight you’re wearing black you want to wear white… why can’t you just Love your self for what you are be happy with what you have?
    I found this book that everyone should read… it’s called “Love Your Body, Love Your Life” by Sarah Maria, and it’s amazing.
    It’s sickening that we are so self absorbed with our own body image.
    Learn to love yourself for who you are. If everyone would want to be the same person what a boring world we would be in.
    Be yourself, find yourself…enjoy and love yourself!

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