If you go by the media and social norms, the ideal woman today is between a size four and six, weighs 110 pounds, is about five feet, ten inches tall, and has long, shiny hair and legs for days. In other words, the ideal woman has to be inhuman and, above all else, thin.
Body image and the problems caused by an unrealistic desire to attain an ideal, thin body, is a much talked about subjectâ€"in fact, workshops for women about body issues, eating disorders and such abound at the college level. Even in high school, a lot of attention is placed on teenage girls. But the problem is not limited to high school, the new battleground in this body war, it seems, is at the late grade school and middle school level, where teasing, ostracism and mean-spirited comments can make or break a young girl's self-esteem in her most formative years.
To Dr. Dunn-Bjorg Lavoll, an assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University, these years, between ages seven and 12, are the most critical for young girls and precisely the age group that must be targeted.
"The latency age, between 7 and 12, is the period of time when you take in the ideals of society," Lavoll said. "Earlier than that you are taking in the ideals of the parents; a 10-year-old has taken in both the values of the parents and society. They have already internalized that it is good to be thin."
This age, she said, is dangerous because if the children don't have other influences, or if the message that they have to mold themselves into a certain body type is not broken through organizations besides the home, then all the kids are left with is the media-driven message that says 'thin is best.'
Braden Chmiel, a social worker at the Forest Park Middle School, agreed, adding that the social pressure to be thin is taking hold of children at a much younger age these days.
"Everything happens in middle school. An incredible amount of developmental changes happen at this time: physical and emotional development and social development," he said. "These things are affecting kids earlier, whereas in the past it was more particular to a high school population. The kids are very much keeping track of what other kids look like. A lot of the clothes middle school kids wear accentuates the body in certain ways. I think it becomes a problem in that too much focus is given to how your body looks. And then they start taking it to the next level. Everything that happens, happens in middle school. When they come to us in sixth grade, they are very different than when they leave us in eighth grade."
Chmiel adds that in the middle school range, peer pressure regarding body image often comes out as ridicule.
"The teasing is pretty typical," he said. "Any physical thing seen outside the perfect body has a tendency of being ridiculed. Ostracism is the new trend with middle school girls. It is a pointed exclusion. The girl being excluded is very much aware that she is out of the popular group."
Dr. James Murray, a social worker who has also worked with the Forest Park schools, said the teasing is only the beginning, and dangerous tendencies develop as a coping mechanism for the ostracized or ridiculed student. Murray also writes a column for the REVIEW.
"It does different things to them," Murray said. "Some of the kids get their feelings hurt and retreat, become passive. Others become hostile and react in kind. In every case, no matter how they react, it is detrimental to their self-image. Then, they are going to find a way to compensate, to find coping mechanisms. Some are positiveâ€"some kids study more, become bookwormsâ€"and some develop negative coping mechanisms."
Some of the negative coping mechanisms, Murray said, include bulimia, cutting and self-mutilation. Some girls even become promiscuous because some attention, even negative attention, is better than none.
In fact, adds Lavoll, the girls who succumb to this have all kinds of tricks to lose weight, such as restricting their eating, throwing up or obsessively counting calories. Regardless, the outcome is both physically and emotionally damaging to the child.
"The thinking of an adolescent is black and white, thus if they haven't reached a goal, it becomes a tragedy," Lavoll said. "I had a case [where the woman] had determined to lose a certain amount of weight, and the only way was to bleed herself. Two pounds, two liters of bloodâ€"that is absurd! I had another young woman who said she had not reached her ideal weight until it was a danger to her life."
So where do all these problems come from?
"Each epoch has their own societal ideals. In older days it was your status symbol," Lavoll said. "These days you can't tell who is rich and who is poor, especially among teens, so the body has to become the ideal. It is an ideal not only the girls have picked upâ€"the boys also want to be with a girl that fits the social norms. It is considered more attractive, a trophy. Thinness becomes a prominent problem when you have girls who so strongly identify with the social ideals of 'be smart, successful, thin' that they don't often have a sense of who they are."
It is also a uniquely American ideal.
"Success is an American ideal. In our culture hard work is valued, [so it becomes a] competition for who can be the prettiest," Lavoll said. "The fallout is that if you can't get your ideal appearance, you think, what can I do to get me there? This is the root of eating disorders. They [young women] perceive their value lies in their looks, in looking a sanctioned way."
Parents also play a role in the dangerous spiral of image consciousness, Lavoll said, adding that parents want so badly to have their children be successful, they often consciously or unconsciously put pressure on their children.
"I had one person I work with now whose mother, when she was 5-years-old put her on a diet. [Image consciousness] is so infused in our environment, where thin is good and heavy is bad."
The media, music videos, the fashion industry, magazines and television also play an important role in shaping societal norms.
"There is a lot of pressure from kid's media, their video games, musicians, a lot of pressure for them to grow up and grow up quickly. Popularity is seen as of the most importance, " Chmiel said.
Lucia Suarez, a social worker with the Forest Park public grade schools, agreed.
"The media has a lot to do with this," she said. "A lot of the things the kids see now from movie stars to all kinds of idols, it is all about appearance, what they wear, how they look. It is more about looks. You don't hear about other positives they might have. A lot of the kids who like these stars want to be like that."
In a media frenzy where thin is beautiful, Suarez and Chmiel add, it is important to have positive role models.
"I think that if you look at a lot of role models, you see a lot of the comedians and occasionally an actress but it does seem the focus is on being thin," Chmiel said. "I think there needs to be an attempt to get more role models like this model [Toccara] out there."
Toccara, a plus-size model who amazed television audiences by competing and placing high in UPN's televised, nation wide model search "America's Next Top Model", is one of the few positive role models who are breaking the size four stereotypes.
"I think it was awesome that she was very self-confident, to be able to get that far. She was one of the ones to make it further than the thin girls and her personality had a lot to do with it," Suarez said. "More role models like that would be great for kids."
Toccara said she sees herself as a role model, not just a model.
"I see myself as a role model for women because the average woman is a size 14," she said, adding that she wants to "let people know we don't have to conform, whether you are a size 6 or 8 or 18."
Toccara is 200 pounds now, but when she competed in "America's Next Top Model", she was 180 pounds, considered large for the industry. But even she hasn't been spared from the social pressure to be thin.
In fact, she began her career as a 'regular' model.
"When I was a size four, I thought I had to be thinner. Now, I am so much more confident. I love my size," she said. "I am average-sized for the average woman, but for the industry, I am plus-sized."
Gospel singer and songwriter Shirley Murdock agreed.
"Everybody comes in different shapes and sizes," she said. "Instead of saying plus sized, let's say beautiful. God made us all perfect and if you let people validate you, then people can cancel you, so don't let them. You cannot let the media determine your self-esteem; the main thing is to be healthy."
Being healthy is exactly the message that needs to replace the 'thin is beautiful' message, experts say.
"The first thing that needs to be made clear with these young women is that not eating is not an option," Chmiel said. "They are at an age where their bodies are still developing and they need to get their nutrition. I hear from kids that so-and-so has not been eating and it turns out to be this body image problem. Parents need to be aware of their kids' dietary intake."
Murray stressed that it is also important to watch kids at this age to be aware of what they are going through, to be supportive and to seek help if needed. Most importantly, though, is to have a strong partnership between the schools and the parents to ensure don't slip through the cracks.
"It is important for kids to get help. A good place to start is teachers and social workers at school," he said. "If the kid is worse than that and they start talking about anorexia, bulimia, or cutting, maybe you need to go further, but if they do, your school social worker is a good resource to find good people."
Parents also need to be hands-on.
"If kids talk to parents about it, it is a positive sign," he said. "Parents have to be supportive of their kids, regardless. [Tell them] 'You're a good kid and we love you.' Parents need to be supportive but try to steer kids towards trying to get some appropriate help. I would if it was my kid, and I trusted the teacher, I would talk to the teacher."
"Parents need to normalize with these kids what they are going through," Chmiel said, adding that the schools are always willing to work through these issues with the parents. The bottom line is that teasing and ostracism needs to be dealt swiftly at school and at home, through communication and intervention.