'America the Beautiful' Probes Fashion's Ugly Side

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A trio of indie movies highlight America's toxic obsession with weight and its harmful impact on women and girls. Advocates say it's difficult to mount a counter attack against harmful media images.

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Since the 1970s, the escalating pressures have been reflected in the shrinking size of fashion models. "Even in the '90s the models were not skeletal, but today the fashion industry says clothes look better on hangers and want women (models) like hangars," said Lynn Grefe, president of the Seattle-based National Eating Disorders Association. "Even if people don't develop eating disorders, the self-esteem issues are rampant," said Grefe, who appears in Roberts' film.

According to a 1996 study, an estimated 80 percent of young adult U.S. women were dissatisfied with their appearance, and particularly their weight. But an estimated 10 million women and girls, and a million boys and men, have slipped beyond dissatisfaction into life-threatening battles with anorexia and bulimia, according to studies. "I meet the parents and see the tears from people who've lost a loved one from something that could be stopped," says Grefe.

Efforts to prevent eating disorders have been underway for years but until recently, none has proven to significantly reduce the risk, according to Eric Stice, a leading researcher in the field who works at the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene.

Peer Group Intervention

The best results to date have come from an intervention called the Body Project, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, in which Stice has played a principle role. Earlier prevention efforts have involved telling young women about unrealistic body images and the dangers of eating disorders but the messages have not stuck.

In contrast, the Body Project's approach has been to show small groups of high school and college students pictures from magazines and then to ask them to talk about how these images affect adolescent girls. "We've proven that if the information comes out of their mouths, they listen to themselves," says Stice. This approach has been replicated successfully a dozen times, including among sorority sisters at Trinity University.

This small-group technique, however, can hardly counter the relentless mass media promotion of thinness.

Grefe thinks it's time to try other routes, such as applying workplace safety laws to fashion companies that require models to be too thin for their health. She'd prefer a voluntary approach, but said she was deeply disappointed by the failure of the Council of Fashion Designers of America to suggest a minimum body-mass index requirement after the deaths of two models in 2006 from anorexia. The council's spokesperson said there would be no response to Grefe's comment.

While acknowledging that he is "just one guy trying to make a difference," Roberts, meanwhile, has been using his movie as the focus of a crusade against a proposed new MTV show called "Model Makers." MTV issued a call for women who want to be models willing "to endure 12 weeks of intensive physical fitness training to get them down to their ideal size."

His efforts have apparently succeeded. MTV now says it has no plans to air the show.

Frances Cerra Whittelsey is an author and freelance writer whose current work and blog, The Equalizer, focus on women's health, the environment and alternative energy. She also teaches media ethics at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

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