COVER

Pressures to conform

The thin, shapely look can be dangerously unrealistic

CELIA MILNE January 12 1998
COVER

Pressures to conform

The thin, shapely look can be dangerously unrealistic

CELIA MILNE January 12 1998

Pressures to conform

The thin, shapely look can be dangerously unrealistic

CELIA MILNE

Lose 20 lb. by Christmas!” screams the headline on the cover of a popular women’s magazine. Beside it is a picture of a gorgeous, typically stick-thin model. And below her is a photo of ... guess what? A turkey dinner with all the trimmings. In vivid color, the cover neatly illustrates the body-image dichotomy: the twin obsessions with thinness and indulgence. Between the extremes of women intentionally so underweight they risk death and others overweight enough to be candidates for cardiovascular disease and adult-onset diabetes, there are millions whose body mass index—relating height and weight—is in the normal range. Yet most of them feel fat.

“Oh my God, we are so sick in this society,” fumes Dr. Joan Johnston, 48, an Edmonton family physician who suffered from anorexia from her late teens until well into adulthood. As a child, she was surrounded by messages about the importance of thinness. “I don’t remember a time when my mother wasn’t on a diet,” she says. “My cousin and my aunt were always dieting.” Johnston traces her eating disorder from a day when she was 19 and her mother patted her on the backside and said: “Better watch out, girl. You’re getting a little broad across the beam!”

Johnston has recovered from what she now sees as an addiction to dieting. “I am five feet, three inches and I weigh 133 lb., the same as I did before anorexia,” she says. “I am extremely comfortable with my body, and it is so liberating to not have to put energy into that. But I’m very atypical.” Now, she puts her energy into helping young women who have eating disorders—a societal problem that is not getting any better.

Unhappiness with body image seems to be a national preoccupation. According to statistics compiled by the National Eating Disorder Information Centre in Toronto, 90 per cent of Canadian women are dissatisfied with some aspect of their bodies. One of the main battlegrounds in the fight for improvement, of course, is eating. According to the Maclean’s year-end poll published in late December, 43 per cent of Canadian women—compared with 33 per cent of men—believe they are overweight. The eating disorder centre says that its surveys show that fully 70 per cent of Canadian women are preoccupied with their weight, and 40 per cent are yo-yo dieting. “For most women, when they get together in a group a common topic is trying to lose weight,” says Dr. Christine Davies, a family physician in Saint John, N.B., who is concerned about how that may rub off on their daughters. Margaret Beck, acting director of the eating disorder centre, affirms that danger. “The research,” she says, “does seem to suggest that mothers who are food-and weightpreoccupied tend to have daughters who are the same.”

Public awareness of eating disorders got a big boost in 1995 when Diana, Princess of Wales, began talking openly about her struggles with bulimia. That bingeing and vomiting condition affects three to five per cent of young Canadian women aged 14 to 25. The other main manifestation of food preoccupation is anorexia, affecting one to two per cent of that group. And the problems occur among younger girls, too. “There are girls younger than 10, even as young as 6, being admitted to hospital programs,” says Beck. “It is still a small number, but it is growing.”

Another popular route in the quest for a better body is plastic surgery. There are no national statistics on esthetic surgery in Canada, but the trends are visible in figures kept by the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons. From 1994 to 1996, the number of people having tummy tucks rose 103 per cent, breast augmentation went up 123 per cent, breast lifts increased 60 per cent, chemical peels rose 47 per cent, retin-A anti-wrinkle treatments grew by 256 per cent, buttock lifts rose by 146 per cent and thigh lifts went up 93 per cent. Dr. Thomas Bell, president of the Canadian Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery in Toronto, also notices a trend towards younger patients wanting plastic surgery. “The median age has moved from the mid-50s to the late or mid-40s,” he says. “This is part and parcel of body image issues.”

Perhaps it was media images of ample, perky breasts that persuaded more than 100,000 Canadian women to undergo silicone implant surgery between 1969 and 1992. That type of implant was banned in 1993, and at least 10,000 Canadians blame them for health problems including arthritis, lupus and scarring.

Saline implants in a silicone shell are now the norm, and women are still seeking breast enlargement. Vancouver plastic surgeon Kimit Rai says they generally come in two age-groups: the younger women aged 19 or 20 who have never been happy with their breasts, and others who have finished breastfeeding their children and want a pickme-up. The cost is steep—between $5,000 and $10,000—and there are possible, well-documented, risks. Yet for many women, the importance of looking full-figured seems to outweigh the need to feel good. “About five or six per cent are unhappy with their implants

because they cause discomfort,” says Rai, “but because they look good, they don’t want them out.”

In fact, women will go to frightening lengths to achieve their body ideal, according to an extensive reader survey published last year in 3 the U.S. magazine Psychology Today. A troubling 24 per cent of } women said they would give up three years of their life to achieve their weight goals. A few were willing to forgo motherhood because pregnancy would ruin the trim bodies they had worked so hard to achieve. Young women “are being initiated into feelings of body dis> satisfaction at a tender age,” reported the magazine, “and this early programming may be difficult to undo.”

The same willingness to pay a high price for an enhanced image is evident in the fact that young women are now the fastest growing group of smokers in Canada. The reason appears to have a lot to do with low self-esteem. Studies indicate that young women who take up smoking consider themselves significantly less attractive than do their peers who never take up the habit.

Part of the esteem problem is inevitably related to the impossible ideals with which women are bombarded. “We are constantly shown images of very sick, anorexic women and that’s what we are striving for,” says Davies. “The average woman is five feet, five inches and 145 lb. The average model is five feet, 11 inches and 110 lb. Ninety-five percent of us don’t match up and never will.” Ironically, she adds, the average North American’s weight has been rising over the past few decades, so most women are moving further away from the physique they seek.

Striving for the unattainable creates insecurity among women, says Davies. And that, in turn, leads them to try to please even an unreasonable partner. “A woman is more likely to stay with a man who is abusive if she has low self-esteem,” Davies says. “She just doesn’t have the confidence to leave.” Among teens, low self-esteem can lead to unsafe activities designed to show their worth, such as having sex before they are ready to, which carries with it the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Those tendencies alarm Dr. Sarah Kredentser, who sees a lot of young women in her Winnipeg family practice. “People judge themselves against others and through the eyes of others,” she notes with regret. “It is not experience, personality skills and character that counts, but image.” According to Kredentser, society’s preoccupation with body image has worsened over the past decade. A 65-year-old woman recently asked about liposuction. “If you haven’t solved your body image problems by the time you are 65, then you’ve got problems,” Kredentser says.

On the other hand, it can sometimes be a positive step for a woman to have something “done” that has been bothering her for years. “I have seen instances where minor plastic surgery such as nose reshaping has made an enormous difference in self-esteem,” Kredentser says. “My concern is that this can become the slippery slope. Then it’s, ‘Now I’ll get my breasts done the way I want them,’ and what next?”

Women simply have to become comfortable with the fact that their bodies are going to age, she says. “If you don’t, you will have a chronic struggle with unhappiness and low selfesteem,” says Kredentser. “You can never win this battle.” Instead of surgery, women are much better off doing the psychological work necessary to accept the aging process, she says.

1 Acceptance is a vital key to dealing with body insecurities. As

2 an administrative assistant at a student residence at the Uni| versity of Waterloo, Angela Kelman, 23, has an interesting per2 spective. At five feet, six inches and weighing between 135 and i 140 lb., she says she is not wrapped up in body image issues I herself, yet sees those obsessions all around her. First-year students are worried about putting on pounds—“the freshman fifteen,” as they call it. “What I see most is over-exercising,” she says. “A couple of my friends do it to maintain a model look.” Another trend among female university students is vegetarianism. “They say it is because of allergies, religion or animal rights,” says Kelman, “but I think it is to lose weight.”

Kelman credits her upbringing in Waterloo for her lack of concern about body image. “I come from a very close, large family with five children,” she says “My mother loves to cook, and I cook the way she does. We enjoy very balanced meals, and never a lot of prepackaged foods. I don’t worry about it much. I’m lucky.”

There is no doubt the way a woman views herself can affect those around her, particularly children. A mother-daughter competition to lose weight by dieting and going to the gym is not a healthy new year’s resolution, says Beck. Instead, she suggests such pleasurable activities as walks in the park or games of touch football that don’t have to do with food or weight loss.

A family life focused on looking good contributed to Joanne Frère’s obsession with body weight. The 35-year-old Edmonton social worker began to diet about 15 years ago, thinking it would make her a better person. “I thought thinness was equated with intelligence, success, being a good worker, achievement,” she says. Over the years, she travelled the long and difficult journey from the depths of anorexia and bulimia, through the ups and downs of healing, and into a healthy way of thinking. Her coping mechanisms include reaching out to friends, taking long walks, focusing on things other than her weight, and listening to her body. “I am five feet, three inches and 128 lb., I will never be five-feet-six and 110 lb.,” Frère says. “I eat what I want and I don’t beat myself up. I have learned that I have the same feelings as everyone else, and I have acquired the tools to deal with life.”