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Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall.

Ads and fashion magazines tell us how we should think about our bodies. And that's causing many kids to wreck their lives.

For Camryn Manheim, co-star of the hit show The Practice, the triumph was beyond her wildest dreams. She had just won an Emmy--the top award for TV performers--for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama.

Manheim walked onstage to nab the trophy and deliver her acceptance speech. Then the moment seized her. She thrust her Emmy in the air and shouted, "This is for all the fat girls!"

She had battled self-consciousness about her size since she was 11 years old. Now Manheim made headlines with her joyful outburst. She brought attention to an obsession that wreaks havoc in the lives of millions of American teens: body image.

There's the skinny girl who makes herself vomit. The pudgy kid who gets teased in gym class. And the star athlete who takes steroids. Millions of teens are haunted by the fear that their bodies don't measure up. In some cases, that fear can lead to death.

Why are teens so worried about how they look? There is mounting evidence that the "hunks and babes only" attitude of the entertainment and beauty industries is a major cause.


Most people want to look their best. It's human nature. At no time are such feelings more intense than in the teen years. In a 1998 study of girls ages 12-15, more than 57 percent listed appearance as their biggest concern.

All you have to do is flip through Seventeen or Teen People to see that advertisers know this. Teen magazines are filled with page after page of shiny hair framing perfect faces on perfect bodies. Advertisers know that such photos help sell their products.

"Ka-CHING! That's the cash register advertisers hear every time you look in a mirror and complain about your flabby thinghs", says Miftah Leath of About-Face!

About-face! is an advertising and media watchdog group that also works with young people to help them develop healthy body images. "The entire purpose of beauty ads," Leath told JS, "is to make you dissatisfied with something about yourself--your hair, your body, your clothes--so that you'll go out and buy their stuff. They exploit kids because they're a potential source of income."

Members of About-Face! deplore the "starvation imagery" found in beauty ads. As a rule, models weigh 13 to 19 percent less than what's normal for their age and build. "Advertisers are showing one type of body," Leath says. "The underfed girl."

Leath's daughter, Marcella, a volunteer at About-Face!, agrees. "It becomes a learned behavior to want these images of perfection", says Marcells, 16. "And then to want to become them yourself."

Unfortunately, most kids are hearing society's twisted messages loud and clear. Girls think they should look like Jessica Alba of Dark Angel, and boys think they should resemble heartthrob actor Jason Behr.

Such ideas start in the very young. One study showed that almost half of U.S. kids in grades 1-3 think they should be thinner. Four out five 10-year-olds are afraid of becoming fat. Among adults, almost half of U.S. women and a quarter of men are dieting on any given day.

It's an odd obsession since research shows that weight-loss diets almost never work. Nine out of 10 dieters regain the weight they lost, and many actually add pounds. Worse, diets often lead to eating disorders.

Dying to Be Thin

"I'm taking the first step . . . I just admitted to myself that I was anorexic.... I've got a long, hard road ahead of me, but I'm going to make it." Seventeen-year-old Amanda B. wrote those words on the "Survivor's Wall," part of the Web site. The wall holds hundreds of hopes and fears of people who have battled or are battling an eating disorder.

The desire to be thinner is taking its toll on the health--and happiness--of many kids like Amanda. Eating disorders are caused by a complex mix of social and family pressures, stirred by an emotional or behavioral problem such as depression. According to one estimate, between 5 and 10 million girls and women in the U.S. struggle with an eating disorder, as do 1 million boys and men. About 1,000 people die each year from these illnesses.

Here are the four main forms this disorder takes:

Anorexia nervosa: The individual is terrified of becoming fat, refusing to eat or maintain normal body weight.

Bulimia nervosa: The individual binges on food, then vomits or uses laxatives to avoid gaining weight.

Binge eating disorder or compulsive eating: Feeling out of control, the individual eats large amounts of food in one sitting.

Anorexia athletica or compulsive exercising: The individual is obsessed with exercising, beyond what's good for his or her health.

Getting Pumped Up

Girls and women are at the greatest risk for developing image problems. But guys are fast gaining ground. For most males, the pressure isn't so much to be skinny as to look "pumped up." According to Charles Yesalis, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, this tempts some WWF. wannabes to take a shortcut by using drugs.

"The use of anabolic steroids has cascaded down... to high schools and now middle schools," Yesalis told the Reuters news service. And the end results can be deadly. Users end up with heart and liver diseases that destroy their health and slice years from their lives.

Surviving and Fighting Back

"My name is K.R. I'm 13 years old and in eighth grade," wrote a teen on the Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention [EDAP] Web site. "When I was 11, I compulsively exercised and dieted to lose weight. At 12, I was checked into an eating-disorders clinic at 70 percent of my body weight."

Like K.R., people with eating disorders need help to battle the problem. (See box on previous page.)

But there are ways to protect yourself. Aim a critical eye at the ads and attitudes that try to tell you what to look like and how to feel about it. If you find a company's ad or a person's comment out of line, speak up. "You don't have to prove anything to anyone," says Marcella Leath. "We're the way we are for a reason, and that's good enough."

Camryn Manheim couldn't agree more. "I [wanted] to provide an alternative role model to young girls," Manheim writes in her autobiography, "At a very early age, girls in this country are subject to images of leggy supermodels and emaciated [underfed] waifs, distorting their perception of what women--real women--actually look like."

Images in the media have little to do with reality. And, as Manheim has shown, it's what's inside that really counts.
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Author:McCollum, Sean
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Date:Jan 8, 2001
Previous Article:The Lost Boys Look for Home.
Next Article:Divided Loyalties.

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