A Woman's Body Shouldn't Be A Trend: Why Promoting Unhealthy Body Images Is Damaging Gen-Y Women

by Sarah M. Leads

Imagine living in a world in which you were forced to come face-to-face with what you fear most three times a day. Imagine being deathly afraid of spiders; imagine not only having this fearful object in front of you, but also being pressured to face it three times a day, letting the spiders crawl all over your body. That overwhelming fear and anxiety is what eating a meal can be like for someone struggling with an eating disorder.

Recently, an article was released by Elite Daily supporting the “bikini bridge” trend, which came off as offensive to many readers. After reading the article myself, I decided I needed to address Elite Daily, personally, regarding the subject of female body image in our culture. Elite Daily responded in kind by removing the article and asking me to share, firsthand, the negative effects of such “thinspiration” in the media.

I work as a mental health professional in a residential rehabilitation center, where we help women work on overcoming disordered eating. Every day, I engage with women who struggle to complete their meals. It isn’t uncommon to see these women tearful or anxious after mealtimes.

Often, these women are also fighting the urges to purge or to self-harm, sometimes successfully overcoming the urges and other times not. It is my job to be a source of support for these women, whether they’re having a good day or a bad one.

While the majority of readers are aware of the dangers of eating disorders, it is clear that many people within our own generation have learned to accept and encourage this obsession with thin. Body image crazes, such as “thigh gaps” and “bikini bridges,” are everyday examples of how the media’s obsession with “the super thin woman” has wormed its way into our daily vocabulary and our own cultural norm of beauty.

While many people may not know someone suffering from a diagnosed eating disorder, each of us knows of a friend who is often preoccupied with her body weight or trying crazy diets. For example, I have a friend who works out over two hours a day, about five days a week and, when we go out to eat, she regularly makes comments about “how much of a fatass” she is for eating everything on her plate, or how she needs to go work out afterwards.

My friend is not diagnosed with an eating disorder, but she is also vocally, chronically unhappy with her body. While this everyday example may not be nearly as extreme as being in a rehab facility for an eating disorder, this self-hating attitude shared by so many women is certainly cause for concern.

Let’s redefine the cultural norm of “thinner is better.” Rather than unconsciously enforcing this standard of very thin women, let’s be consciously enforcing healthy, sustainable living and self-love. Going back to my example, instead of being upset with herself for being unable to reach this unrealistic body image, my friend could focus on leading a healthy lifestyle that's right for her own body. Instead of focusing on self-hate, she could transform that negative energy to more positive, creative energy.

Our culture is very aware of how media outlets perpetuate unsustainable body images. I’ve seen many posts on popular social media sites, such as Facebook and Tumblr, which talk about and demonstrate the idealization of Photoshop. That being said, I can’t help myself from posing the question: If people know that the images we see in the media are edited, why do women, in particular, continue to try to embody and replicate these unhealthy, unnatural images?

The reason is that family, peers and respected role models often unconsciously validate what the media says we should strive for. One particular story that resonates with me from work is of a resident who suffered from a severe eating disorder. Her disorder stemmed from an athletic coach pressuring her to lose weight in order to be faster.

Wanting to excel at her sport, she didn’t think much of it and lost weight in order to perform better. The more weight she lost, the more attention she received from her coach and college recruiters. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of her story was that at the height of her sickness and at her lowest body weight, she was receiving praise and encouragement from those in the athletic community. Instead of acknowledging her cry for help, those around her ignored her unhealthy appearance and behaviors, and exploited her “lighter” and “quicker” talent on the field.

At the end of the day, there’s very little we can do to change the media. What we can do, though, is be conscious and less critical regarding body image and more supportive of realistic goals of sustainable living. This is applicable to both men and women -- gay or straight, 12 or 80. We are all members of a great and resilient generation; however, in matters such as this, we forget that we’re all on the same team.

It’s one thing for the media to advertise unhealthy body types; it is another for our friends, families and role models to be actively supporting these unhealthy body trends. Making statements like “The bikini bridge is the new thigh gap,” or “You need to lose weight to play in the upcoming game,” or “I can’t believe you ate all of that,” is insensitive. Take a minute to really think about what that suggests.

You’re telling everyone that you are no better than the media, you support largely unrealistic body types for women and that the women in your life (e.g., your sister, your best friend or your girlfriend) should do whatever they can to try to embody them, including engaging in unhealthy weight loss tactics.

The women I’ve had the privilege to work with have expressed to me how their eating disorders often stem from negative and hurtful comments made repeatedly by their parents, coaches, peers and boyfriends/girlfriends. Eating disorders, in particular, can stem from a multitude of different events, such as abuse. However, I want to draw your attention to the eating disorders that often stem from these comments made by their loved ones.

In my experience, off-handed and thoughtless comments about body size, eating habits, general appearance or even athletic performance have the ability to cut deeper than intended and have the power to act as a catalyst to a full-fledged eating disorder.

Sitting and sharing meals with residents in recovery is part of what I do on a daily basis. Typically after meals, the residents express how they’re feeling. One of the most memorable mealtimes for me was listening to a young, adolescent girl list off about 12 negative feelings regarding her body, ranging from feeling “fat” and “guilty,” to “disgusting,” “hopeless” and “worthless.”

Not only did this girl say all of this with impressively flat affect, but also did not touch her meal and refused nutrition supplements. Imagine that this young girl’s eating disorder could have been nonexistent if the people in her life, whether it had been her family or her peers, had been less critical and more sensitive towards simple, encouraging, sustainable practices.

Just as we can’t will a sick loved one to health, we also can’t will someone to love him or herself. However, we can help the women in our own lives by simply being aware of what we say and being slower to speak criticism. Being able to support and validate another’s struggles is such an underrated way to show someone that you care about him or her.

Remember that we’re all flawed human beings and everyone could benefit from being more compassionate and also being on the receiving end of that compassion. It starts with YOU.

I challenge you, members of Generation-Y, to become more aware and compassionate. Think about what you say before you say it because you never know the words that will leave invisible scars behind on your loved ones. Think twice before publicly glorifying unhealthy body image crazes, such as the “thigh gap” or the “bikini bridge.”

Our generation is faced with many challenges, from trying to find a steady job in this economy, to trying to prove ourselves to the older generations before us. There is no reason we should add to our problems by being overly critical and insensitive towards one another, driving each other to practice unsustainable living habits.

Photo via We Heart It