The Disappearing Act


Keep preteen girls’ emotional and physical health from

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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.

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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

“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

Girls do a good job of expressing themselves until they reach

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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

“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).

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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

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

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
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.”

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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

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

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

“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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