Walk down the corridor of any junior high or high school today, and you are bound to see clusters of stick-thin youngsters “sprayed” into skin-tight clothing, some showing the skin of a pancake-flat belly, figures reminiscent of the Barbie dolls so many of them played with not too many years before. Their shoes elevate them high off the ground in an effort to accentuate the very long, very lean look. Is every thin youngster anorexic? No. Is every thin youngster who got to be that way through dieting or restricting food a candidate to develop anorexia? Yes.

The statistics show a frightening trend:
• 11 percent of all high school students have an eating disorder; anorexia or bulimia.
• By the time girls get to college, 40 to 50 percent of them are reported to be disordered eaters, dieting, skipping meals and bingeing. Disordered eaters and youthful dieters become high-risk candidates to develop anorexia and bulimia, particularly when born with addiction or eating disorders in their genes and in their brain chemistry.
• Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, commonly known as anorexia and bulimia, are the most lethal of all the mental health disorders, killing or maiming from six to 13 percent of its victims.
• 86 percent of eating disorder victims are under the age of twenty.
• The average age of onset for anorexia and bulimia has dropped from ages 13 to 17 to ages 9 to 12.
• Kids as young as age five are reported to express anxiety and relieve stress through food restriction, weight preoccupation, and excessive forms of exercise.

Eating disorders result from the misuse of food to resolve emotional problems.
Anorexics obsessively strive for thinness by restricting food intake and losing weight. People with anorexia nervosa have a distorted body image and an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming “fat.” Anorexics need not be overly thin, and most of them do eat. Bulimics typically experience frequent episodes of bingeing and purging and may abuse laxatives or diuretics. Like anorexics, they have a strong desire for thinness. Compulsive overeaters or binge eaters eat enormous amounts of food and feel depressed, out of control, and guilty as a result.

Does the media influence how young people think about themselves?
Undoubtedly. Our kids are a generation that has been brought up watching the emaciated stars of Hollywood and television sitcoms. 65% of American youngsters have their own TV in their bedroom, with unlimited access to view influences that are less than healthy. Too many kids grow up believing that what they see on the screen is what women and girls are supposed to look like, despite the fact that most fashion models are thinner than 98% of American women. During the last decade, a study by Dr. Anne Becker in the Fiji Islands showed that when television first came to that part of the world, airing shows such as Melrose Park and 90210, there was an appreciable incidence of anorexia and bulimia among this country’s women and girls, where before, the disease had been virtually non-existent.

The Internet too, has become a major source of influence for our young women. Controversial pro-anorexic web sites proliferate throughout the Internet, despite the campaign to have them removed from the larger search engines. The pro-anorexic sites are places which motivate and instruct viewers how to become the best anorexics they can be. A number of my eating disorder patients have admitted that these sites were the trigger or inspiration for their bad eating habits to cross the line into clinical disease.

Scan the magazine rack of any super market the next time you are waiting to check out, and observe that magazine covers are dominated by sure-fire ways to lose weight fast and become happy, successful and loved, as a result. A 1984 study (Rodin, Silberstein and Striegl-Moore found that children view good-looking peers as smarter and friendlier than unattractive peers…and assume them to be happier and more successful. Another study revealed that about 70 percent of girls in grades 5-12 say magazine pictures influence their ideas of the perfect body shape. More significantly, nearly half of the population studied reported wanting to lose weight because of a magazine photo. (Field, Pediatrics Journal, 1999).

Parents do make a difference.
At the same time that our media is influencing our youth, even more significantly, it is also influencing their parents. The most critical messages our youngsters receive about their body image and their self-worth comes from what they see and what they hear at home. Many parents struggle with their own dysfunctions around body image and eating. One study found that 75 percent of women and 54 percent of men are unhappy with their physical appearance and wish their bodies were different. With the trendy diets that go in and out of popularity so frequently in our culture, myths and misconceptions about the benefits of diets and restrictive eating abound.

With women increasingly in the work force and/or at the health club, only 50 percent of American families sit down together at the dinner table these days. Kids are left to fend to themselves when it comes to what, when, and how they eat. At the same time, fast foods have become more available and affordable with obesity on the rise, afflicting one out of three in the U.S. today. Studies show that mothers with their own eating disorders, body image conflicts and dysfunctional eating habits have children who are more apt to suffer eating problems and depression by the time they reach age five.

Prevention and solutions start at home.
As a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders for the past 32 years, I have treated literally hundreds of families dealing with eating related and body image problems. Through my work with parents and children, I have come to believe that parents who maintain healthy attitudes about their own bodies, who model healthy eating behaviors, and who provide nutritious food for their family, preparing, serving, and sitting down to eat meals together with children as frequently as is possible, virtually immunize their child from developing eating problems. Healthy attitudes and eating behaviors, along with healthy problem solving and sound parent/child connections becomes the “vaccine.” When children are raised to value themselves and the importance of making a contribution to world they live in, when they are taught to recognize feelings and are given permission to express them freely and effectively in the interest of solving problems, they will have no need or incentive to turn to food to do this for them.

When kids require information, they will take it from whatever source is most readily available. Parents need to recognize the power of the example they set, of what they do, and of who they are for their children. Nature abhors a vacuum. If positive messages are not forthcoming from the home, you can rest assured that your child will be looking elsewhere for his or her answers, to peers and to the media, to fill in the blanks. Forewarned is forearmed. Eating disorders are not only curable in 80 percent of cases that are detected early and treated effectively, but they are clearly preventable.

Author's Bio: 

Abigail Natenshon, MA LCSW is a psychotherapist who has specialized in the treatment of eating disorders with individuals and families for the past 33 years. The author of When Your Child Has An Eating Disorder: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Parents and Other Caregivers, Ms. Natenshon is the founder and director of Eating Disorder Specialists of Illinois and a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner. She and uses this hands-on body-centered technique in conjunction with traditional psychotherapy to augment and promote body image awareness, acceptance and healing.

Abbie consults professionally and speaks widely on the topics of eating disorders… their prevention and treatment, body image, and healthy eating and weight management. She has published widely in books, magazines, journals and newspapers, and has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the John Walsh Show, and MSNBC News. The creator and host of www.empoweredparents.com, www.empoweredkidZ.com, and www.treatingeatingdisorders.com, she conducts a private practice in psychotherapy in Highland Park where she resides with her husband.