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The Latest Skinny on Body Images

Helping your children maintain a healthy diet is always tricky, especially considering the multitude of media advice and subtle messages both you and your kids are exposed to. Turn on a morning show one day, and you’ll see a guest talking about fighting teenage obesity. Flip the channel and you’ll likely find another person who is just as passionate about eating disorders—a term used most often in context with people who are dangerously underweight.

“It's necessary for parents to help keep things within the realm of healthy common sense.”

Obviously the right answer is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, but with the amount of information kids face, it's necessary for parents to help keep things within the realm of healthy common sense, and that starts by helping them understand the motivations of the media surrounding them.

The subject of extreme weight loss and anorexia is in the headlines in a big way lately with February's Fashion Week in New York City attracting the eyes of the industry. Yet after the recent deaths of models who fought to keep their weight in the "perfect" size category, many are wondering what can be done to prevent further tragedies and more are considering the messages fashion models are sending to the millions of teens and adults who worship them worldwide.

Ana Carolina Reston was a 21-year-old girl from Brazil who died in November 2006 from complications brought on by anorexia. The five foot eight girl was a scant 88 pounds with a body mass index of 13.5. As a reference, the World Health Organization deems anyone below 18.5 as underweight and a BMI of 15 indicates a person suffering from starvation.

Ana's mother, Miriam Reston, who has explained that her daughter was trying to help their middle-class family with the money she made from modeling, has taken on a brave face and is dedicating her time to telling the world about the perils of the fashion industry. Reuters quotes Miriam Reston as saying, "Take care of your children ... no money is worth the life of your child, not even the most famous (fashion) brand is worth this."

A few months earlier, in August 2006, Luisel Ramos from Uruguay died of heart failure at the age of 22. Reportedly living on Diet Coke and lettuce leaves, the young lady weighed a mere 98 pounds at a height of 5 feet 9 inches. She fell to her death as she left the runway at a fashion show in Uruguay.

These tragedies have woken up some areas of the industry to consider new standards. The Madrid Fashion Week last September said no models could have a BMI under 18. The Associated Press reported from the event that 30% of the models were rejected, and that the organizers of the event -- the Association of Fashion Designers of Spain -- wanted "an image of beauty and health" at the show.

Unfortunately the Madrid show, well significant, isn't as huge as Milan, Paris, London and New York. It's in these clothing Mecca's where some designer will dictate what your daughter will be stuck buying in a year, and what body shape she will have to be in order to wear it. At this time, only Milan has adopted similar restrictions, banning models with BMIs under 18.5.

According to a February 7, 2007 article from Reuters, at New York City's Fashion Week, organizers were touting new guidelines that recommend teaching models about nutrition and eating disorders and offering healthy food backstage with no cigarettes or alcohol. However, the unnamed reporter of the article says, "there was a steady supply of free alcohol and cigarette smoke was in the air." The "healthy" breakfast observed consisted of miniature pastries, champagne, coffee and caffeinated energy drinks. One of the partakers of the alcohol was 19, two years below New York's minimum drinking age.

Two janitors reported seeing girls "purging" their food into garbage cans, but a Fashion Week spokesperson says the named janitor in the article wasn't listed as a credentialed worker and denied that models were making themselves vomit backstage.

Now to the flipside. Dietitian Anne Flether has written a book called Weight Loss Confidential with the hopes of giving obese teens some safe and informed ideas on how to lose weight. Her motivation was her own son, who was 270 pounds at the end of his eleventh grade. She notes that her son wouldn't listen to her or his father's advice on weight loss, and it wasn't until he met another boy who once had a similar problem that he was able to be motivated to change his diet. Flether took this moment as an insightful way to help others, and organized her book so it's written by teens for teens.

Obviously obesity is a major problem in our society, and teens and even younger children are at risk. In this column, I have written frequently about the links between media use and health -- specifically weight gain. On MSNBC.com, Flether writes that one in three US children and teens are overweight or at risk of being overweight.

Add to this the people suffering from anorexic or bulimic disorders (which, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, account for a little less than 10% of women along with a small fraction of men) and combined, these two ends of the spectrum make up a good proportion of our population.

Yet, what I find interesting with Flether's experience is that it wasn't until one of her son's peers talked to him that he was motivated to change his eating habits. In this case, it was positive peer motivation, but what does that say about teens who are being influenced to shed pounds needlessly?

As I view media, I see television and movies full of hypocritical examples of both sides of the overweight/underweight spectrum. One that immediately comes to mind is a Mary-Kate and Ashley movie where the leggy girls are led to a private jet piloted by their father for a trip to a tropical paradise. Waiting for them on their seat is a dozen doughnuts, which they exclaim is their favorite food. Here is a prime example of needing to discuss with our children the improbability of regularly eating a dozen doughnuts and keeping a figure like these girls. (Mary-Kate's tragic need for treatment of a real-life eating disorder just a few years later made this scene all the more ironic.)

With television shows depicting people (typically females) who are often commenting on needing to lose weight, and then interspersed with fast food and junk food advertisements, it's no wonder kids are confused. Magazines, movies and outdoor advertising continue the body worship mantra. Somehow, we need to help our children understand what they can do to walk the fine line in the middle of the obesity/anorexia battle.

For parents seeking some good advice on helping their teens avoid eating disorders, check this page from the National Institute of Mental Health: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/eatingdisorders.cfm

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