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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Body Image

Q. Body image is a big deal in today's society. Getting your body to look its best can mean damage to your body. What are some ways to prevent people from taking risks associated with the ideal image being expressed on TV and in magazines?

A. You are right in calling attention to this problem. In our culture, the quest for thinness (in the case of females) or muscular bulking up (in the case of males) can become a compulsive and destructive pursuit. Most experts in eating disorders, such as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa, believe that cultural factors play a major role in these conditions. (Interestingly, these eating disorders are comparatively rare in very poor countries where food is scarce, and where the popular culture does not promote such body images).

How do we prevent people from taking risks associated with these idealized body types? I suppose I would begin with basic health and nutritional education in the very early grades--emphasizing moderation, well-balanced diets, and moderate exercise. Early exposure to realistic body images could begin even in grade school, continuing through the teen years. Looking for underlying depressive and anxiety disorders in young people is also important, since sometimes these go hand-in-hand with eating disorders, or at least, with abnormal food intake.

Parents, certainly, can be positive influences on their children in terms of body image--I think that the mother-daughter dialogue may be particularly important in fostering a realistic body image. (It can't be a coincidence that many teenage girls who develop eating disorders seem to have very disturbed relationships with their mothers and/or fathers).

Unfortunately, these efforts may seem paltry in comparison with those of the multi-billion dollar industries that--on the one hand--promote extreme thinness; and on the other hand, constantly tempt us with fast-food, super-meals, etc. A book that may be helpful to some individuals grappling with these issues is "The Body Image Workbook" by Thomas F. Cash, Ph.D.

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September 2003

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