Additional interview by: Utkash Dubey
As a part of beauty product company Dove’s new “Real Beauty” campaign, the Dove Self-Esteem Fund released various statistics pertaining to girls and their body image. One, for example, stated that seven in ten girls believe that “they are not good enough, or do not measure up in some way.” Recently, comments made by clothing company Abercrombie and Fitch’s CEO Mike Jeffries in 2006 have resurfaced, in which he summed up the retail store’s sales strategies as “exclusionary.” In response to these facts, The Oracle decided to investigate the prevalence of body image issues at Gunn.
According to school nurse Bill Palacio, many students who have body image issues perceive their bodies to be very different than what they really are. “Even though they’re at a really healthy weight, a lot of them still have that image; they look in the mirror and see something bigger than they actually are,” he said. “So, of course they want to get skinnier, tinier and even though some of them are really small, they still just can’t get that out of their heads.”
Advanced Placement Psychology teacher John Hébert believes the body image issue is becoming increasingly widespread, largely due to western cultural practices. “In our country and many western-influenced countries, body images that are sort of perfect and ideal are projected all the time,” he said. “Women, and to a lesser degree, men develop this idea that when they look in the mirror, they start focusing on what they see as flaws and what others may not even see as flaws.”
Hébert also recounts psychological studies that suggest that many women do not accurately perceive what men find attractive. In one such study, a group of men were shown a series of body figures of varying sizes and asked to choose the most attractive one. A group of females were then posed the same question with the same figures, but they tended to choose figures much skinnier than what the men had chosen.
Yet, according to Palacio, females aren’t the only ones affected. “I see a lot of males who want get muscles and this bigger, stronger look,” he said. “A lot of
people tend to hear body image and think, ‘female students,’ but there are a lot of male students who are affected by it too.”
The pressures of one’s own perception of body image do not come alone and can have an adverse impact on one’s mental health. According to Palacio, students’ academic performances can be severely hampered by such issues. “They’re so fixated on that mental health issue,” he said. “It stems from their perception of their body, and then from that they can’t concentrate in school.”
Feeling inadequate with one’s body is often the precursor to more serious health issues, such as mental disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. People who suffer from the former have an abnormal fear of gaining weight, and consequently severely limit their eating habits. Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by consuming large amounts of food and subsequently trying to purge it. Up to 24 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating diso
rder in the U.S., according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
A female student at Gunn, who had suffered an eating disorder earlier in high school, recounts her story. “At the beginning, there were just a lot of negative feelings, and they all had to be directed somewhere,” she said. “I thought that being skinny and losing weight would solve all my problems and ultimately make me happy.”
Four months after the start of her disorder, a check-up revealed that she had an extremely low electrolyte count and heart rate. The student was subsequently hospitalized for ten days.
The Gunn community has taken steps to address the topic. Student Executive Council Secretary junior Hope Schroeder helped implement the nationwide event, National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, during Not in Our Schools Week this year. Titan Broadcast Network for the first time ran a public service announcement about the dangers of body image perception during that week. In addition, Communications, a freshman-year English class which will be offered next year, spends time in the curriculum to detail the impact the media has on body image.
The anonymous student wants people to understand that eating disorders are solely illnesses of the mind. “The way I think of it is that life is a box, and when you have an eating disorder, it kind of closes in on you and traps you,” she said. “It really is an illness of the mind, and it can happen to anyone.”
English teacher Diane Ichikawa, who also teaches Communications, believes the most important step for Gunn to take is to simply bring it out into the open. “Opening the doors to conversation is the first step, just because so many students are not given the opportunity to talk about their body image,” she said.
With media and society constantly setting new highs for one’s body image, insecurity is a prominent issue for those with distorted body image perceptions. “There’s a perception problem created by media and film, and you also have the experience of models who become ridiculously thin and not particularly attractive,” Hébert said. “But because we have made modeling some sort of glamorous profession, there are even young women who are not satisfied with what most young men would consider a nice young figure, and they are convinced that they’re too fat.”
Over time, with the advancements of photoshop and related computer generated effects, the m
edia has developed certain body images that have had impacts on those with body image problems, and has also caused much insecurity in people. “If you
go back forty to fifty years and look at films, you can look at the romantic leads and see that they had pretty thick waists, they didn’t have six packs,” Hébert said. According to him, the ideal of attractiveness has shifted toward a skinnier physique, and those with leaner bodies are considered the model these days.
According to Schroeder, the pressures do not discriminate by gender. “Every teenager, not just girls, encounters pressures to be a certain way, and that can be hard regardless of how good your sense of yourself or your self-esteem is,” she said.
The anonymous student says her support system was strong throughout her struggles, which was really helpful. “You kind of find out who your friends really are,” she said. “It’s also really important to have a good relationship with your parents, because they have to care for you and understand why you’re struggling.”
Palacio agrees that helping those who suffer these issues depends on making them feel appreciated. “We need to let them know that they’re not alone, that there is help out there,” he said.
Another anonymous Gunn student who had suffered from an eating disorder agreed that support from friends stands as the most important aspect for situations like this; for her, the greatest source of strength came from a friend who quietly made herself available for her. “She didn’t stick her hand in my life, and she didn’t force her support,” she said. “Nothing changed with our friendship because she treated me like a normal person.” According to her, when people have problems, if others keep focusing on them, they will not help solve the issue at all.
Body image issues are much more prevalent than many people imagine. According to Palacio, the topic needs to have more coverage at Gunn. “These issues don’t come up too often, but often enough where it needs to be addresses,” he said.
Schroeder also agrees that body image consequences are very far-reaching.“Usually when you think of eating disorders, you think of starving models, actresses, ballerinas, things like that,” Schroeder said. “But the truth is, it’s not only skinny people, girls, teenagers, white girls; it’s much more far-reaching than we think. You only have to scratch the surface to realize all the people whose lives have been impacted, whether it be people that have dealt with eating disorders themselves, have family members who have dealt with them, or who don’t have strong body image in general.”