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The Disappearing Act

Phyllis Ring

Keep preteen girls' emotional and physical health from vanishing.

Britney Spears has gained weight; Lindsay Lohan has lost it. Nicole Ritchie is way too thin, but Paris Hilton is perfect. The Olsen twins faced a personal, yet very public, dilemma when one of them was diagnosed with and hospitalized for an eating disorder. It's undeniable that our culture bombards preteen girls with images and messages like these that looks matter.

"While many of the teenagers I work with have been exposed since childhood to commercials for sugary, fatty foods, popular culture is now bombarding them with size-0 models," says Samantha Foxall of the youth group she leads. "That's a very confusing set of messages for anyone, especially a young girl."

While obesity in children has become enough of a national concern that politicians are calling for legislation to prohibit junk food marketing to young people, another danger exists for girls as young as 8 or 9, says media analyst Jean Kilbourne.

Fearfully Made

The Word of God tells us we're all created in God's image. In fact, the Bible says we're fearfully and wonderfully made, but preteen girls fear that they're made all wrong.

"Long before their bodies have even finished growing," Kilbourne says, "they're beginning to diet and limit their eating because they believe that, to be accepted, they need to look like the images they see in popular media."

Kilbourne's documentary films such as Slim Hopes have alerted Americans to the distorted body images that help the dieting industry flourish, keep women frustrated, and put young girls at risk.

"The body type most commonly pictured -- tall, slender, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped -- is one that belongs genetically to a very small percent of the total population, but it's the only one we ever see. Or worse, with computer-engineered images, we see 'models' composed from up to seven different images, 'bodies' that aren't physically possible without plastic surgery."

In the pursuit of such impossible standards, increasing numbers of girls view dieting as a necessity and experience eating disorders that are damaging their bodies irreparably. A Harvard Eating Disorders Center study found that 31 percent of 10-year-old girls say they fear being fat, and 52 percent of 14-year-old girls feel better about themselves if they're dieting.

Here Today...

There's a connection between culture's messages and girls' efforts to control eating and body size, according to Catherine Steiner-Adair, Director of Education at the Harvard Eating Disorders Center. Steiner-Adair researches the cultural trends that discourage girls from expressing themselves freely or behaving assertively.

Girls do a good job of expressing themselves until they reach pre-

adolescence, when they encounter what she calls the "tyranny of kind and nice."

"Society sends them a clear message that in order to be listened to, they have to posture themselves correctly," she says. "They begin to mimic older women by suppressing anger, hiding their feelings, and feigning happiness."

"A 9-year-old will tell you 'I think,'" says Steiner-Adair, "but by 11 or 12, a girl is more likely to begin her sentence with 'I don't know.' "

As her "voice" begins to disappear, a girl may try to "shrink" in other ways, too. When girls don't feel acceptance for expressing themselves, they often seek shelter in some form of control. The most common focus is their bodies and eating.

"I had definitely lost my voice and my way," says Jennifer, a teacher in her 20s who's in recovery from an eating disorder. "Now I try to visualize the healthy food I choose as God's gift to feed my true power and my true voice."

Satisfied Cravings

Teachers and other youth mentors often long to help such girls, but may not know what to do, notes Katie Cane, who formerly served on the New Hampshire Board of Girls, Inc., which aims to empower girls and intercept their damaging perceptions about body image.

"We're entrusted with a weighty mission to awaken in them a healthier path for themselves, both spiritually and physically, and it helps to understand the real hunger behind body-image issues and girls' attempts to control their eating," she says. "To quote C.S. Lewis, 'We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence and private: and therefore, starved for meditation and true friendship.' While girls may be physically starving themselves, what they are really starving for is affection, and to know that they are loved just as they are."

We can offer this ourselves, says youth leader Foxall, and also foster young people's belief about God who ultimately offers them the best source of love.

"That's the real affection that we want them to crave, since that's the one that God's bounty will always satisfy," says Foxall. "In order for them to feel closer to God, they need to gain a whole new view of one of his greatest creations -- their own bodies -- whatever the messages around them are saying."

God's View of Beauty

Our bodies are an invitation to contemplate the wonder of the spiritual realities reflected in God's creation. The very unity of its parts and functions demonstrates that creation in God's image implies wholeness and interrelationship both in ourselves and the world around us.

Debora Burgard, Ph.D., creator of the Web site and a therapist who specializes in body-image issues, recommends replacing confusing or destructive messages about body image with a focus on gratitude for how we are "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14).

It's easier to behold our body as the wondrous gift it is when we recognize something it has, unasked, done on our behalf; for example, fighting off an infection; taking us to the top of a mountain; staying awake so we could drive home safely; learning a new skill; watching the colors of a sunset; producing another human being; functioning despite being in pain; and so on.

The God's-eye view suggests that a healthy self-image is rooted in God's view of us as dearly loved children, acceptable in every way before God (Ephesians 5:1). Such acceptance is physical, as well as spiritual, so it benefits us to try to change the way we see (ourselves and the world) rather than the way we look.

"One of the things I'm working at the hardest is loving and accepting my body as the gift from God that it is, committed to my care," says Jennifer. "I'm learning to value the function of all its parts and to truly understand that it is the home of my spirit. By understanding God's view of my body, I now know that I am so much more than just my thoughts or my emotions. My identity has its roots in truth, in my spiritual nature."

Body-Image Traps

Use these strategies of informed intervention and conscious role-

modeling to help girls bypass potential eating disorders and adopt the balanced approach to living that our loving God desires for us.

Actively adopt a mentorship role. Adolescents often listen to a teacher or other adult more receptively than they do to their parents.

Watch girls closely. Listen and create opportunities for them to potentially open up to you, says Foxall. "I often do this by asking girls to help me create materials for an activity," she says, "And consequently, we 'visit.' I often think that this is my most effective service-being with and interacting with them this way."

Acquaint girls with facts that offset advertising hype. Point out how mixed messages and false images target them specifically. "I videotape outrageous samples and then we watch them in class and take them apart and expose them for just what they're trying to do," Foxall says. "The girls love it."

Encourage girls to try new things. Assist girls in affirming their bodies in new and unexpected ways, advises Jeannie Hunt, who conducts workshops for older elementary and junior-high students in Western Massachusetts.

"In a self-defense class for women, the instructor had young women use their voices in a variety of ways, including noisy ones, to learn that they can respond differently, and that they actually have a voice to use," Hunt says. "When I had girls in some of my workshops try the same thing, they were amazed at how strong and powerful they felt. Theatre arts would be another great way to help young women do this."

Create an atmosphere of acceptance. Then give girls opportunities to offer their ideas. Ask them to help you with a personal problem you're trying to solve, such as how to get along with another person. "This has led to some unique solutions that, beyond empowering the girls, also helped me!" Foxall says.

Give girls practice using their voices. Have girls role play effective self-expression as they act out how they might respond to a challenging situation. Coach them on how to speak up when it's scary to share something or how to express concern about an issue or problem without jeopardizing a friendship.

Monitor what you do and say. Watch for anything that might reinforce the damaging things young women come to believe about themselves. Eighty percent of women who were asked what they wish for most said "to be thin" or "to lose weight," says Kilbourne." Young girls aren't the only ones affected by unrealistic cultural norms. If these ideas come up when you're with students, question and address them, then emphasize the power of such alternatives as self-acceptance, balanced eating, and moderate exercise.

Expand and bolster girls' self-concept. Encourage activities that diversify their experience, fortify their emotional strengths, and develop their talents and interests. Also, widen their circle away from contact only with similar peers by increasing their interaction with age groups other than their own -- from elders to toddlers -- through activities and volunteer work.

"One of the best ways to help young woman avoid the eating disorder/poor body image pitfall is for those of us who've walked the road ourselves to point out the potholes along the way," encourages Jennifer, who's recovering from an eating disorder, "in hopes that other young women will be able to sidestep the very deliberate, unhealthy, unrealistic images of 'beauty' that are readily available at magazine stands."

Phyllis Ring is a mother of two who has developed religious education curriculum for children and youth. She lives in Exeter, New Hampshire.

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