Parental Influence Takes Precedence over Barbie
and the Media
By Abigail H. Natenshon MA, LCSW, GCFP
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; their shoes elevate them high off the
ground in an effort to accentuate the very long, very lean look.
These figures are reminiscent of the Barbie dolls so many of them
played with not too many years before. When
I grew up as a youngster in the 1950’s, dolls were basically of two
types; there were baby and
toddler dolls, the ones that little girls nurtured and cared for,
emulating and role modeling after their own mothers as they practiced
becoming compassionate and caring adults one day.
The other category included dolls from around the world, bedecked
in costumes of their countries, representing various cultures.
Barbie holds the distinction of being
the first doll to become an adult figure in the child’s life, needing
precious little in the way of care taking from her child owner.
She became an icon, a role model, a figure to be emulated and
revered, transforming the child’s role of caretaker to one of the
passive bystander and observer of a creature who had made it in life and
had it all. She would
ultimately become a representative of our own culture.
Mothers, as well as their daughters took in Barbie’s messages
about how shape and size matters at the very brink of our society’s
revolution for women who were becoming liberated, entering the
professions in greater numbers, becoming divorced, participating in the
sexual revolution, blending families, and abandoning mealtimes and
family rituals in favor of work force and the work out.
Barbie, along with England’s Twiggy in the 60’s, led the way to
create what was to become the new standard of beauty in the female
If she were alive, Barbie would be a
woman standing 7 feet tall with a waistline of 18 inches and a bustling
of 38-40. In fact, she would need to walk on all fours just to support
her peculiar proportions.
Yet media advertising, television and Hollywood would reinforce her
message, influencing what would become the American ideal of feminine
beauty. By the time an
American girl is 17 years old, she has received over 250,000 such
commercial messages through the media.
Typically triggered by such messages, body image preoccupations
and disturbances can arise, leading to distortions in all aspects of
self-perception, potentially triggering the onset of a clinical eating
disorder in individuals with genetic susceptibilities. When body image
distortions and fears co-exist with an eating disorder, they render the
disease more intractable, and recovery more challenging. Clinical eating
disorders are the most lethal of all of the mental health disorders,
killing or maiming 6 to13% of their victims, 87% of whom are under the
age of 20.
Barbie and media influence how young people think about themselves?
Our children’s generation 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 viewing 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. And America is not
alone. 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 led to the
development of an appreciable incidence of anorexia and bulimia among
this country’s women and girls, where previously, the disease had been
Statistics have shown that 50% of ads
in teen girl magazines and 56% of TV commercials aimed at female viewers
used beauty as a product appeal.
In a recent survey by Teen People magazine, 27% of girls affirmed
that the media pressures them to have a perfect body.
68% of girls in a study of Stanford undergraduates and graduate
students felt worse about their own appearance after looking through
women’s magazines. The
number one wish for girls 11 to 17 is to be thinner.
Girls as young as age 5 have expressed fears of getting fat.
In a survey of elementary school students, girls commented that
they would prefer to live through a nuclear holocaust, lose both of
their parents or get sick with cancer rather than be fat. 80% of 10 year
olds have been on diets. Of
these, less than twenty percent are actually overweight.
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.
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 inspired bad eating habits and attitudes and increased their body
image concerns sufficiently to cross the line into clinical disease.
Does viewing Pro-Ana
sites hold the capacity to trigger an eating disorder in all viewers?
No…. not unless one’s family heritability creates a biological and
genetic propensity for the onset of a clinical eating disorder.
Parenting does make a difference
same time that our media is influencing our youth, even more
significantly, it is also influencing parents. In the end, little girls
grow up to become women and mothers of their own little girls.
As role models for their youngsters, even healthy normal women
typically experience body image distress today.
75% of normal women think they are overweight.
90% of women overestimate their body size, and 50% of American
women are currently dieting.
Increasingly, adult women admit to suffering from unresolved eating
disorders into their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.
One study showed that mothers with their own unresolved eating
disorders, body image conflicts, and dysfunctional eating habits raise
children who are more apt to suffer eating problems and depression by
the time they reach age five.
industry in America generates $33 billion annually. Myths and
misconceptions about the benefits of diets and restrictive eating
abound. With women increasingly spending time 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. Children are increasingly left
to fend to themselves to decide what, when, and how to eat. At the same
time, fast foods have become more available and affordable.
Obesity is on the rise,
afflicting one out of three in the U.S. today.
Prevention and solutions start at home
news is that the most critical messages our youngsters receive about
their body image and self-worth comes not from the media or Internet,
but from what they see and hear at
home. As a
psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders for
the past 41 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 seen 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, can be highly instrumental in
protecting their children from developing eating problems.
When raised with healthy attitudes towards self and food,
children who are taught to recognize feelings and are given permission
to express them freely and effectively in the interest of solving
problems will have no need or incentive to turn to food to do this for
important to note that most genetically susceptible children who develop
eating disorders come from healthfully functioning families with bright,
committed and loving parents who model exemplary eating lifestyles and
life function. Parents are not
to blame for their child’s eating disorder… except perhaps in rare
instances of severe dysfunction or child abuse. Having said that,
enlightened parents, when provided with expert professional help,
are in an ideal position to
prevent, or heal, an eating disorder in their child.
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 may be preventable. Children can find many of the answers they seek
about how to eat healthfully for fitness or weight loss, and how to
insure size sustainability in
Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Love Their Bodies
acceptance is not related to weight or actual body size, but to
self-esteem and emotional health.
The true indicator of a good body image is good self-esteem – not
the ability to fit into size 2 jeans.
effort to foster self- and body-love, parents should:
Minimize “diet” and
weight talk, an activity that may require parents to take a look at
their own eating and exercise rituals, attitudes, and preferences
about weight and size.
Never joke about,
tease, or shame anyone because of weight or size.
about the American cultural bias in favor of excessive thinness.
Help your child develop immunity to the steady stream of media
messages that distort her perspective by countering destructive
messages with reality messages.
and weight-loss fads.
Instead, encourage a wellness lifestyle. If your child wishes to
lose weight, encourage her to eat differently, not less.
Not equate thinness
with happiness, self-satisfaction or self-actualization.
Praise their child
for what she does, not for how she looks.
Do some of those things together with her in quality time.
Give their child a
vision of a greater purpose in life that extends beyond herself and
her appearance, thereby encouraging her to develop healthy interests
and passions. Self-esteem is drawn from productivity and
Teach their child
that there is no such thing as an “ideal” body.
Beautiful bodies come in all sizes and shapes based on each
individual’s unique strands of DNA.
Pay attention to
negative comments their child may make about her shape.
Even if such comments are irrational, be empathic, not
dismissive, as she feels her feelings deeply.
Engage the child in a discussion about what she feels she might do to
look better, and how a changed appearance might improve her life. How
might she plan to accomplish these goals? If through dieting, why not
suggest a better way, through developing a healthy eating lifestyle….
Engage together in
activities that promote accurate, realistic and meaningful body
awareness at more profound levels, teaching her to recognize the
connection between body and mind.
Encourage the child
to become aware of her feelings, to own and express them in the
interest of resolving problems rather than harboring them in
Discourage extreme or
excessive behaviors of any sort, be they sleeping too much, sleeping
too little, shopping too much, studying too little or too much, etc.
important for parents to realize that in order for children to feel
attractive and good about themselves, they need to learn to become
effective problem-solvers, good communicators, and compassionate people,
as well as healthy eaters. As John Muir once said, “When one tugs at
a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the