Dolly’s Model Search has torpedoed a government attempt to set up industry self-regulation on body image.
We give talks at schools about body image and there are always girls in tears. They come up to us afterwards and confide that they compete to see who can eat the least number of calories at lunch. Even those who present as confident reveal they can feel ”like a pig” for eating an apple when their peers are on a severe calorie restriction diet.
Many report eating almost nothing during the day, then finding themselves uncontrollably overeating in the afternoon in private.
Some are distressed when they see pop-up diet ads on the internet while trying to do homework. Others report going on a media ban for a month to try to break the anxiety about not being perfect. Into this troubled environment enters Dolly magazine and its resurrected Model Search, pitting girls against each other in a contest which should have remained banned. The 13-year-old winner, Kirsty Thatcher, was announced this week in Sydney.
Kirsty and state finalists appear bright, beaming, lithe and without obvious body fat. They fit the stereotype. (An indigenous girl is the only divergence.) They will now be presented to teen and tween girls as “role models” and “inspirational”. But what are they modelling?
A meta-analysis of 77 studies involving 15,000 participants, undertaken by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, showed that ”exposure to media depicting ultra-thin actresses and models significantly increased women’s concerns about their bodies, including how dissatisfied they felt and their likelihood of engaging in unhealthy eating behaviours, such as excessive dieting”.
Jess Hart – Dolly’s 1998 model search winner – posed with Jennifer Hawkins on a 2010 Grazia cover headed: “Jen & Jess: how to get their $5M bodies!” Hart told Grazia she gets “super strict about her diet” before a photoshoot.
Despite all the body image initiatives and education, the bombardment of images ultimately has more effect.
“We didn’t want to betray our readers and teenage girls,” says editor Tiffany Dunk. So why only choose girls who fit an idealised norm?
Dunk says they didn’t ask girls their weight or their size. But this was hardly necessary. Readers were asked to ”rank” a photo of 14-year-old Geelong entrant Elodie Russell. What for – personality?
If Dolly wants to justify the contest by saying peers should model to peers, then they should model a diverse range of shapes and sizes to reflect what the readers look like.
It is troubling to thrust any girl into an industry where they are taught what matters most is to fit some cookie-cutter mould of what women should look like.
And what of the girls who don’t make it? How many are damaged by the message that their value lies in how others view and judge their bodies?
One ex-Dolly model entrant has written: “I was never as happy or as sure of myself after that. It was just too big of a let-down, because … it was a rejection from ‘the experts’, from people with professional opinion, and it was a closing of doors in my face from a glamorous and revered industry.”
And now Dolly has won a prize of its own, in the federal government’s inaugural positive body image awards, the centrepiece of the Australian government’s National Body Image Advisory Group set up in 2009.
Giving Dolly the positive body image award is like awarding KFC a healthy food award because it started selling salads.
As other countries such as France and Spain look to change the law (for example, by banning ads for plastic surgery and dieting until after 10pm), our government has introduced a toothless voluntary code and rewarded a magazine that upholds the body ideals of the global beauty industry.
The Minister for Youth and Sport, Kate Ellis, said at the launch she was ”calling on industry professionals to move beyond the ‘business as usual’ approach and take real action to promote positive body image”.
Unfortunately industry didn’t give a damn. Besides Dolly, the Dove Body Think Program was highly commended. Dove is owned by Unilever, known among other things for its skin-whitening creams, seeking models who meet a long list of beauty criteria, photoshopping women in its ”real beauty” campaign, and the notorious Lynx/Axe brand of male deodorant, which has been advertised as “washing away the skank” of an unwanted sexual encounter, and using the more recent “Clean your balls” campaign.
Even Mia Freedman, a former Dolly editor and chair of the advisory group, admits she was “wrong” to think the voluntary code of conduct would work. “NOTHING HAS CHANGED. The Body Image Code of Conduct has been given the fashionable middle finger by those it was aimed at,” she wrote.
That’s a lot of money and energy down the drain.
When will we get regulation that actually works, and which doesn’t reward a girls mag for bringing back the archaic practice of pitting girls against one another based primarily on their looks.
Lydia Jade Turner is a psychotherapist and managing director at BodyMatters Australasia. Melinda Tankard Reist is a commentator and editor of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, 2009). Both were co-founders of Collective Shout, which entered the body positive awards.
Because children don’t already feel bad about themselves enough, there’s a new book just about to be released titled Maggie Goes On a Diet. I asked Collective Shout colleague, psychotherapist and managing director of BodyMatters Australasia Lydia Jade Turner, for her views.
Written by self-proclaimed “obesity expert” Paul M. Kramer, Maggie Goes On a Diet tells the story of an ‘overweight’ teenage girl who goes from chubby-loser status to become the soccer star at her school, following significant weight loss. The cover depicts a fat child seeing a skinnier version of herself reflected in the mirror.
Yesterday in The Punch, journalist Lucy Kippist praised the book which encourages dieting for girls as young as four.
Kippist argued that widespread criticism of the book was misplaced. Pushing aside concerns about eating disorders and other negative consequences of dieting, she attempted to legitimize the story by citing the statistic that one in four Australian children are obese.
Kippist described the “courage” Kramer had given the central character Maggie to “make changes in her life” and be “rewarded” for them, She ticked off a further benefit to Maggie’s weight loss: avoiding teasing by her classmates.
As a clinician who specialises in eating disorders, I have seen the damage that diets do to children who are labelled ‘obese,’ and what happens to those children when they are grown up.
The typical presentation is anything but one of good health – whatever their size. When we get children to focus on weight loss as a goal – however well intended this may be – we are putting them at significant risk of developing food and body preoccupation, weight cycling, reduced self-esteem, mood disorders, eating disorders, and other health detriments.
Any parent concerned about an ‘overweight’ child needs to know this: no weight loss approach has been shown to be effective for more than 95% of the population after two to five years. There are no exceptions.
While this failure rate for weight loss is based on a 1959 study by Dr Albert Stunkard and Mavis McLaren-Hume, this failure rate has been reproduced by numerous clinical studies, and acknowledged at both the Australian New Zealand Obesity Society conference in 2009 and again at the inaugural International Obesity Summit in 2010.
In addition, weight loss attempts typically lead to long term weight gain – and a weight higher than one’s pre-diet starting weight. So promoting weight loss may actually be contributing to the obesity “epidemic.”
Kippist’s citing of the obesity statistic for children does not justify a weight loss approach. The idea that there are so many more ‘obese’ children out there than ones with clinical eating disorders ignores the great spectrum of young people who do not meet the strict criteria for diagnosis but who compromise their health in pursuit of weight loss in other ways. For example, the Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria reports that eight per cent of teenage girls smoke to control their weight.
Patients who were put on diets as children tend to tell me that as children, they felt guilty and ashamed of their seemingly oversized bodies. No matter how hard they tried to be “good,” the weight kept coming back and they blamed themselves for lack of “willpower” – rather than seeing the weight gain as a predictable course of dieting.
They felt like failures whenever their siblings were offered second helpings while they were given a list of “forbidden” foods they were not allowed. Or in cases where the family ate the same diet foods as the child in a spirit of solidarity, they felt guilty as they thought to themselves “everybody is being punished because of me.”
Many of my patients are now in a weight category that would see them labelled “obese.” I wonder what havoc has been wreaked on their metabolism, having been put on diet after diet since childhood.
Many have been so desperate to successfully lose weight that they have resorted to lap band surgery, the weight slowly creeping back three years later. They are terrified of returning to their pre-surgery weight.
When I ask them gently, “What was it like for you at that size?” the typical response is silence. Tears well up in their eyes – their pain is unspeakable.
But unlike what we are told in the “confession” sections of diet advertisements, the pain these women experience is not due to the physical experience of their large bodies. It is due to the deep sense of failure accompanied by widespread stigma and discrimination – the meaning that is attributed to their fat bodies.
Society makes assumptions that because a person is fat they must lack discipline, they must be lazy, they must be stupid and therefore worthy of our disdain. The discrimination they face in daily life is relentless – and like any population facing prejudice, risk of developing mental and physical health problems heightens as a result.
Instead of encouraging children to lose weight to avoid bullying, perhaps parents and educators should work together to change the school culture which enables the bullying to occur.
If your child has red hair and gets bullied, is the solution to dye his hair brown? If your child has big ears that stick out, is the solution to get her to undergo ostoplasty so her ears will be pinned back? There’s something illogical about fighting discrimination by getting the victim to change their appearance or behaviour.
A growing movement of health professionals and human rights advocates now recognize that promoting weight loss as a solution to the obesity “epidemic” is unethical.
About 95 percent of obesity research is funded by the weight loss industry- including research grants awarded to researchers at prestigious universities and professors who are beholden to the pharmaceutical company funding their research. This has contributed to many exaggerated health risks associated with obesity.
Then there is scientific bias- science has always been influenced by the zeitgeist of its time, and we are not free from this today. Many working within the health sector are well intended, and it can be difficult to accept that perhaps what one was taught their entire life is actually wrong.
Einstein once said “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Letting go of the pursuit of weight loss is not the same as giving up – it is recognising that what we’re doing, and have been doing for more than forty years in our war against obesity – isn’t working.
Emerging evidence shows that shifting away from a weight-based model to a health-centred one is showing promising results.
Instead of trying to get your child to lose weight, you can encourage health-giving behaviours which include finding physical activity that is pleasurable for them to engage in; learning to eat in a manner that is in tune with one’s body; accepting that bodies come in different shapes and sizes (as we would expect in any given population); and recognising that health is a multi-faceted, ongoing process that involves physical, spiritual, intellectual, social, and emotional aspects – not a number on a scale.
Helping your child to engage in these changes may not result in weight loss, but will bring about health benefits. More information on the health centred approach can be found at www.sizediversityandhealth.org
BodyMatters: a health-based, not weight-based approach to eating and wellness.
One of the privileges of the cause I’m engaged in is that I get to work with some of the best women in the world. Women who are passionate, bright, engaging, outspoken and fun to be with. In the past year I’ve come to know Sarah McMahon and Lydia Turner. I can’t recall exactly how it happened but pretty much from the moment we met, I knew we’d be working closely together. And that’s what happened. I was just starting to build a new grassroots movement against the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls. It was coming together in an organic way, with women I knew and women I didn’t, coming together to form what is now known as Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation.
Sarah and Lydia are young psychologists specialising in eating disorder treatment and prevention. While ‘picking up the pieces’ at the clinical end, they came to feel that more needed to be done to address the culturally based harms being caused to the women and girls they were treating: that what was required was a radical overturning of the negative messages directed at women. That’s why they came on board. Sarah and Lydia have been a gift to our growing movement with their evidence-based, compassionate and holistic approach. They have since launched BodyMatters Australasia, an idea whose times has well and truly come.
I thought you might like to get to know them more, so here’s my recent interview with them.
Sarah and Lydia, why did you decide to launch BodyMatters Australasia? What will BodyMatters do?
We have had the misfortune of being touched personally by clinical eating disorders and through this experience became aware of the chronic insufficiency of service and support in the Australasian region for sufferers, their family members and friends. Both of us had decided to undertake education to qualify ourselves to “make a difference” in this area. By chance we met at a conference about five years ago, and within no time began spending many days conjuring up ideas about the things we strongly believed needed to be done to eradicate the problem. Together we now have over 10 years of combined study and clinical experience within the field of disordered eating. Our qualifications extend across the disciplines of psychology, nutrition, gender studies, sexual health and public health.
Studying eating disorders made us aware of how much our culture normalizes- and actively encourages- problematic eating behaviours. We realised early on that the behaviours prescribed as solutions to those labeled ‘obese,’ were often the same behaviours we as practitioners were diagnosing in those with clinical eating disorders. It seemed rather unhelpful to view ourselves as existing in the midst of an ‘obesity epidemic;’ instead, we found it more accurate to describe what we are really experiencing as an epidemic of disordered eating. Disordered eating includes those with clinical eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, those who sit far above their natural body weight due to unhealthy eating practices, and also those who exist in between those extremes who experience various degrees of body shame and unhealthy weight loss practices which significantly compromises their health and wellbeing.
At the moment, estimates of disordered eating within the Australasian community are unknown. When we look at estimates suggesting that over 3 million Australians are currently ‘obese,’ we have to keep in mind that not all people who are ‘obese’ are that way because of problematic eating patterns and poor lifestyle choices. There are multiple pathways into ‘obesity,’ for example, some patients who experience bipolar disorder may find their medication leads to significant increase in weight gain. It can be very difficult for them, having to choose between sanity and fatness, largely due to social stigma and size discrimination. So statistics reflecting rates of ‘obesity’ do not accurately reflect rates of disordered eating and poor lifestyle choices. ‘Obesity’ involves a complex interaction often including the role of genetics, epigenetics, social, psychological, physiological, and environmental factors. When we look at clinical eating disorders, it is clear that a high incidence exists, with one study identifying anorexia nervosa as the third most common disease in females in Australia. Despite compelling statistics highlighting the extent of clinical eating disorders, their incidence is under reported.
The relationship between obesity and clinical eating disorders remains complex as the risk factors for clinical eating disorders include elevated body mass and dieting, rendering those who are obese or overweight at significant risk of developing clinical eating disorders if they diet for weight loss. Other research has identified overlapping risk factors for both obesity and clinical eating disorders- such as dieting, media use, body image dissatisfaction and weight-related teasing. Similarly, many people who experience obesity engage in disordered eating of sorts. Ultimately this suggests a strong, complex relationship between obesity and clinical eating disorders. Yet despite attempts to address these problems from a public health perspective, both obesity and clinical eating disorders continue to escalate.
We formed BodyMatters Australasia in recognition of the paucity of services that exist to address our current epidemic of disordered eating. At BodyMatters we provide a range of prevention and treatment services that fully integrate the spectrum of disordered eating behaviours that includes clinical eating disorders, unhealthy weight loss practices, ‘obesity,’ and body shame. Our services include counselling and treatment, education and training, advocacy and prevention, as well as consultancy. We are proud to say that soon we will be rolling out the world’s first successful long-term eating disorders prevention programme, which has been shown to reduce multiple risk factors in the development of eating disorders in teenagers, even after two years! We also operate within a health based paradigm – as opposed to a weight based paradigm – which for many people experiencing disordered eating and body shame often comes as a relief. Our approach is supported by an emerging body of research and we are particularly excited about what we are offering, given that there is currently no other clinic like BodyMatters within the Australasian region.
Ultimately our aim is to move into advocacy. Soon we hope to launch a non-profit advocacy group called BodyUnion, which will be funded in part, by BodyMatters Australasia.
In your years of clinical practice, what have you observed is having the most negative impact on young women in particular? Are these things getting worse?
Without a doubt, the bombardment of a thin ideal across a whole variety of mediums, which completely normalises what, for most, is not healthy. Of course this promotes dieting, which is the biggest risk factor for the development of disordered eating. This is further exacerbated by our fat phobic culture and scaremongering surrounding our current “obesity epidemic”, which links fatness to moral weakness such as laziness, slothfulness and greed.
We believe that when a culture actively promotes and normalises body hatred, we can expect an epidemic of disordered eating. How can people nourish and nurture their bodies in such a hostile environment? Upholding thinness as the only way to be healthy and beautiful is incredibly damaging to young women – we need to start recognising that body diversity is an issue of human rights and a range of body sizes normal within any given population. From the research it seems that women who are happiest with the way they look are more likely to commit to exercise and health-giving behaviours over time.
It is a common myth that if we shame people about their bodies (particularly about being ‘fat’), it will motivate them to adopt a healthy lifestyle. In fact the research just does not support this. What we do know is that body dissatisfaction is a significant predictor of sedentary behaviour and long term weight gain. When people are shamed about the size of their bodies, they are less likely to commit to exercise, often because they don’t want to be seen in public. Stigma and discrimination are some of the biggest predictors of mental and physical health problems, and the application of these to size is no exception.
You’ve been scathing of the current approach to ‘weight loss’ (including on my blog). Why have you taken such a hard line?
Weight loss is a multi-billion dollar industry. Currently there is much money invested in promoting a ‘thin-at-all-costs’ approach to health. About 95% of research in the field of obesity is funded by private industry – including pharmaceutical giants that stand to profit from convenient research findings. That’s a massive conflict of interest! We recently attended the inaugural Obesity Summit in Sydney where professor after professor declared ‘conflicts of interest’ with weight loss corporations before presenting their research. One prominent professor confessed that he sat on the board of Reductil, Australia’s most popular weight loss drug, so it was no surprise that his findings supported a lifetime’s prescription of diet pills to maintain weight loss!
Corporations that stand to profit from weight loss and the promotion of a thin ideal are not only funding research, but entire university departments. Take for example The Centre for Obesity Research and Education (CORE), a department of Monash University. It is funded by Allergan, Australia’s largest manufacturer of gastric banding products. Allergan also manufactures botox and implants. How unsurprising, then, that a recent research study put out by CORE found that 14 year old girls are suitable candidates for gastric banding. It seems that gastric banding is increasingly becoming a cosmetic procedure –whilst its efficacy levels are still dubious over the long term and its (often permanent) consequences minimised. CORE does not even adhere to the recommended guidelines for bariatric surgery, operating on bodies that sit far below the recommended cut-off of BMI starting levels for bariatric surgery.
It seems that there is a vested interest in promoting conflicting, confusing, and ineffective weight loss approaches to health. If you can convince people that their bodies are ‘ticking time bombs,’ abnormal, repulsive, and then sell them weight loss solutions that don’t work, you’ll be laughing your way to the bank. Many weight loss companies deliberately adopt the line “we’re not a diet” when in fact they are, and it’s clear that diets don’t work. Yet what most people are unaware of is that adopting healthy eating behaviours and healthy lifestyle approaches don’t necessarily lead to thinness or weight loss either. It is increasingly recognised that non surgical weight loss approaches carry a 98% failure rate after 2-5 years. Anyone can lose weight, but what happens after the after photo? This statistic was recognised at both The Australian New Zealand Obesity Society Conference (2009) and the inaugural Obesity Summit (2010). Surgical interventions have shown somewhat longer term weight loss sustainability but with numerous health complications – many of which are permanent. It seems that Australians today are putting in the efforts to lose weight, but the weight loss solutions are not working – and many are actually causing harm.
The problem with dieting is that it actually puts people at significant risk of weight cycling, binge-eating, and future weight gain. Weight cycling itself has been demonstrated to be significantly more harmful than maintaining a higher but steady weight. The answer to our epidemic of disordered eating requires us to encourage health-giving behaviours, rather than focus on weight. The health-based paradigm establishes health as an ongoing, multidimensional process that involves psychological, physical, intellectual, spiritual, and social aspects. Health requires us to look beyond the number on the scale. Many people have relied on Body Mass Index (BMI) to inform them as to whether or not they are healthy, but in fact the research is clear that BMI is not an accurate indicator or measure of health.
I wonder why taking a health-based rather than weight-based approach to eating and wellbeing is considered progressive? Isn’t it obvious that this would be the best approach?
You would think so! However because so much research into eating and wellbeing is compromised or biased due to funding and researchers being tied to the weight loss and pharmaceutical industries in some way, most Australians have never heard of a non weight-based approach to health. There is a significant conflict of interest in ‘obesity research.’ Some would go so far as to call the field ‘Obesity Inc.’ This is further exacerbated by research into a health-based paradigm being limited – perhaps due to academic prejudice, politics, and difficulty in obtaining research grants for independent research -resulting in limited representation of the health-based paradigm in peer reviewed journals and ultimately positioning it as an approach to be overlooked. And of course we cannot overlook the billions of dollars per year- in the diet industry, beauty industry, and even medical industry- put into maintaining a weight-based approach to eating and well being.
Are you hopeful you can replace the entrenched ‘thin ideal’ for acceptance of the fact that you can be healthy regardless of size?
It is important to recognize that the research does show that health becomes compromised at statistical extremes. People who are at the statistically extreme ends of thinness or fatness are likely to be unhealthy, regardless of the reasons that led their bodies to exist in that condition. If one’s body size is at such an extreme state that they are unable to participate in health-giving behaviours, such as going for a walk, then they are likely to experience health problems. However, having said that, the range of body sizes and weights that people can exist at and still be healthy is incredibly diverse – and not restricted to current notions of BMI.
The size- diversity movement in other parts of the world (such as the USA and the UK) has started to make progress in terms of challenging the “thin ideal.” This means challenging the idea that ‘thinness’ is the only way to be beautiful and the ultimate indication of health. This is very promising. However the Australiasian community poses some unique challenges. Firstly, there currently is no organised size diversity movement in Australia- which is one thing we hope to coordinate ourselves. There is no doubt this will be a huge undertaking with our fat phobic culture! Furthermore, the thin ideal in Asia is particularly concerning and public health interventions that are mandated by the government very much attempt to prescribe an “anorexic mindset” in the population, by attaching shame to fatness and dictating a very rigid relationship with food and exercise. Despite these challenges we are hopeful that with education and understanding, as well as a bit of coordination, there will be increased community understanding that you can indeed be healthy at your natural body weight- whatever that might be.
Here’s a video interview with Sarah and Lydia:
See also ”Fat Acceptance: Meet the self-esteem warriors”, by Elizabeth @SpiltMilk published by Australian Women Online
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