There have been two recent studies about women and dieting that I want to talk about.
The first was reported in Marie Claire picking up on a ‘study’ by the company Diet Chef that claimed the average woman spends 17 years of her life dieting. The study (I suspect, more accurately survey) also says that this average woman will lose her body weight more than nine times during her lifetime, and that women in the North West of the UK reported spending only four days at a time on a diet, whilst women in East Anglia can manage a whole month. Perhaps most interestingly, the average woman will diet twice a year and will lose on average 11lbs on each diet.
Without going into the statistics and how accurate this ‘study’ is, but taking it instead at face value, there are several rather troubling aspects to this. First and foremost 17 years??! Seriously? How incredibly pants is that, that women spend a quarter of their lives dieting? Trying to lose weight. Attempting to change their appearance. Being dissatisfied with their body.
Worse still, that these women are dieting successfully, but then putting all the weight back on again. It is by no means an easy feat to lose 11 lbs. It is even harder to lose that weight twice in one year. It is – we can see – frustratingly easy to gain weight.
And then, let’s say the average woman weighs 11 stone, and she is losing that weight more than nine times in her lifetime, that’s a whole 100 stone lost – and apparently gained – throughout one woman’s life. Crazy.
Of course, when I said it is no easy feat to lose 11 lbs, what I actually meant was that it isn’t easy to lose that much weight by making slight but sensible variations to your eating habits. If you are significantly overweight and know you are eating too many calories and then you embark on a radical diet that halves your calorie intake, then actually you can lose quite a lot of weight in quite a short space of time. The problem is what happens when you can’t take it any more and have to go back to eating the foods you enjoy. And then all your hard work is done for in a flash.
I know this isn’t news to anybody. Let’s move on to the other study.
This study is a proper scientific one which was reported in The Telegraph and picked up by Jezebel. It said that teenagers who were of normal size but believed they were overweight were significantly more likely to become overweight as adults. It’s a cruel sort of body dysmorphia self fulfilling prophecy. Apparently, the team in Norway found that “59 per cent of girls and 63 per cent of boys who had incorrectly perceived themselves as fat, went on to become overweight as adults.” Of special significance for women is the fact that only 31% of girls who were happy with their teenage bodies became overweight as adults.
The team felt that believing early on in life that you are overweight could lead teenagers – especially girls – to adopt poor eating habits that would lead them down the road towards obesity as they grew older.
We know now of course that our eating habits tend to become established as young children. It’s why I stopped giving my daughter a biscuit to cheer her up after she fell over. I realised I was teaching her to associate treat foods with comfort and that is something I personally know all too well can become firmly ingrained and is an extremely hard habit to break. Food and emotions constitute an enormous chapter of study which I won’t go into right at this moment.
But it would certainly seem from these reports that early dissatisfaction with the way one looks is leading young women to gain weight and then set themselves on a seemingly never ending cycle of weight loss and weight gain which is neither healthy for one’s body or one’s mental health. In future features I will hope to look at what sort of behaviours might help one to feel better about their body and to set up healthy eating lifestyles that would aim to curb this unhealthy fast and feast cycle, but today I want to question why are these young women already comparing themselves ill-favourably with their peers, and in fact psychologically fooling themselves to believe something that is not in fact the case?
It was seeing the Friday 28th September BBC Newsnight discussion on the No More Page 3 petition that finally made me join the dots. Former deputy editor for The Sun Neil Wallis said repeatedly and infuriatingly that seeing young women’s naked breasts in the newspaper was harmless. Leaving aside the worrying issues of sexualisation, these reports into women’s self image and constant desire to lose weight are arguably the best answer for precisely why it is not harmless.
Young women look for role models. They’re not looking at their mums, and they’re not looking at their peers. Their role models are presented to them by the media. Increasingly their role models are celebrities. Hopefully this year thanks to London 2012 some young women will look to several admirable sportswomen as the people they would like to emulate, but most will be looking in magazines and on TV. And increasingly those celebrity women are pictured in various states of undress.
If it’s an official shoot to accompany an interview the celebrity will be Photoshopped into a frequently male influenced unachievable approximation of physical perfection. Long slender legs, shapely hips, big tits, long neck, great skin. A Barbie doll.
If the pic is a long-lensed sneaky shot grabbed while the celeb is holidaying it will not be Photoshopped but will instead point out every natural ‘flaw’ which we are supposed to find unacceptable, nay repulsive.
And between these two extremes lay page after page of fashion features and adverts populated with people who do not by any stretch represent the physical average. The messages are hammered home into these impressionable young brains again and again and again.
Once again I know this is not news to anyone, and yet for some reason it bears repeating because here is the evidence that presenting young girls with these role models is not harmless. It is making them believe they are fat when they are not, and it is setting them on a lifetime of dieting and disappointment. 17 years of a life spent trying to change the way you look because you cannot ever accept your own physical form. It’s honestly desperately sad. And yet it would be relatively easy to stop if only we could be honest with these girls about what is normal and acceptable and desirable in the female physical form. Which is everything from super slender to candidly curvaceous. Please let’s get this right. Let’s not condemn our daughters to the dieting nightmare that we ourselves have apparently embarked upon.