Junkfood Science: "Figure flaws"

May 26, 2007

"Figure flaws"

It is simple to make impressionable, vulnerable young people feel self-conscious, inadequate and bad about themselves. Cruel, but easy to do. Young girls, who are held to higher standards and expected to be beautiful in our culture, are especially easy prey. Pointing out a natural feature that makes them unique or is different from a cultural ideal of beauty, and convincing them the “flaw” is so ugly that because of it they will never be loved or successful in life, is pretty much the marketing tactic used by the weight loss industry for the past century. Lovely, healthy girls around the world have been made to feel they are "too fat" and their bodies are all wrong. Over recent decades, weight loss interests have added another dimension to the body angst by frightening people into believing their “figure flaws” are evidence of bad behavior and nothing short of an anomalous disease that’s sure to spell disability and early demise.

Creating a desperate willingness to do anything necessary to be acceptable and “fit in” has sadly become so common and unquestioned, it’s not only led to unprecedented dieting behaviors and eating disorders, it’s made even recreational surgery a source of entertainment, with make-over shows going to any extreme to transform everyone into look-alikes. There’s lots of talk about how media influences young people, but few talk about the harmful effects on girls of having their confidence stripped when they’re given the message that only one idealized vision of beauty is acceptable and "fit": tall, thin, blond, white and young.

The Onion wrote a satirical piece a few years ago about a children’s book promoting plastic surgery for little girls — nose jobs, breast implants and lipo-suction. As satire often does, it hits very close to home.

New Children’s Book Helps Kids Deal With Pain And Isolation Of Plastic Surgery

...As the book opens, Norah, a little girl who inherited her father's "generous" nose, is peering out her bedroom window at the moon. “‘Good night!' Miss Moon said to Norah," the book reads. “But although the beautiful Miss Moon said good night to Norah, she said it the same way Mommy says good night to homely Miss Crabgrass or creepy old Mr. Kratch. Norah became very sad." ... “It isn't Miss Moon's fault she can't see your inner beauty," Mommy gently tells Norah. “Miss Moon may be very special, but she isn't all powerful." Using an enchanted mirror, Mommy shows Norah the difference between her own perfect nose and her daughter's “big, broad, bulky bird beak." Norah starts to cry, but Mommy assures her that doctors at the hospital can solve her problem, just like they solved Mommy's.

“I wanted to show these kids that the changes they go through in the plastic-surgery ward are normal and natural,"[pediatric plastic surgeon, Dr. Jessica] Krieg said. “It's not like getting your tonsils out. It's something to make you even better instead of just barely good enough."...

... “I like the part where Lissa The Thin-Lipped Butterfly changes from a butterfly into a beautiful betterfly," said Amanda Robles, 8, a collagen-therapy patient from Long Beach, CA. “She'll win all the butterfly pageants now. And even though Matt R. Pillar now pays attention to her, she realizes she's way too good for him."

... “It's just like what Miss Moon tells Norah at the end, after she comes back home with her beautiful new nose: 'My dear, now that you are as beautiful as a little girl can possibly be, all those people are just jealous.'"

Creating shame about being fat — feelings of being mortified, rejected and desperate to fit in — has proven immensely profitable for the weight loss industry. More recently, an intense marketing campaign has ensued to promote bariatric surgery for young teens, at a time in their lives when every one feels the most insecure and vulnerable. You can’t miss all of the television specials and “documentaries.” Last month, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, was awarded a $3.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for an “observational study” — Teen-Longitudinal Assessment of Bariatric Surgery (Teen-LABS) — to evaluate the effectiveness of bariatric surgeries in teens. However, it will be too short in duration, as needed for any credible weight loss intervention to determine long-term effectiveness or clinical outcomes. It has been designed to end while the patients are still in the well-recognized “honeymoon” period — before the inevitable weight regain and long-term health problems are fully evidenced. Instead of health, it will have to rely on false surrogate endpoints (“risk factor numbers”).

As Dr. Paul Ernsberger, Ph.D., an associate professor of nutrition at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and bariatric expert, explained in a March Bloomberg article, when it comes to surgeries, there isn’t anything like the FDA to make sure something has been shown to be safe and effective. “The only limit is malpractice suits. In the case of weight loss surgery, doctors are insulated by an NIH panel, a panel mostly made up of people doing the surgery.” The results of this NIH study won’t be published until 2012 or later. Meanwhile, even before this semblance of evidence is available, the industry is actively promoting bariatrics and lap bands among teens and young women.

Today’s news brought a troubling story revealing the marketing of bariatric surgeries in India by targeting poor, underprivileged girls in small towns and playing on their fears and those of their families that they’ll never be matched up with a suitable husband unless they are slim. The industry appears to have found a unique venue by appealing to matchmakers, nayans. Arranged marriages have been part of Indian culture since the fourth century and 95% of today’s marriages there are arranged, according to Emory College. As Express India reported today, this marketing tactic has resulted in a surge of bariatric surgeries among poor and young girls:

Honey, I shrunk the fat for you...

...[S]mall town girls too, seem to have been hit by a ‘get slim’ syndrome. Considered a privilege of the rich and the famous — with Bollywood leading the brigade — now, young girls from small cities and dusty towns have no qualms about going under the surgeon’s knife to get rid of those extra pounds. Sample this: Last 11 months saw a sudden jump in number of people ready to take physical and monetary pains for a more ‘presentable’ look. Of the 100 bariatric surgeries or gastric bypass done at Ahmedabad, 50 per cent of the patients were females. And, the bulk of them comprised young girls from small cities like Rajkot, Mehsana, Jamnagar and towns such as Surendranagar and Lathi.

Three months ago, on a husband-hunting mission, 22-year-old Shruti Dholakia from Rajkot underwent the gastric bypass surgery at the Asian Institute of Gastroenterology Surgery at Ahmedabad — one of the three centres in India....“It was becoming difficult to even arrange a meeting with prospective grooms. I seriously had to consider the option for surgery,” [her father] said.

The case of a 21-year-old from Lathi in Surendranagar district is no different, with worried parents ready to shell out a few lakhs to help their daughter cut a fine figure. And, with advanced technology and surgical facility calling, girls are all for the famed nose job or liposuction. Parents too, do not cringe at doling out Rs 1 to 3.5 lakh [about $9,000], for getting the right groom....

In Taking Up Space, psychologist, Dr. Pattie Thomas, Ph.D., writes about the need for a powerful voice of truth in a world that keeps women in their place with pressures to be thin and disenfranchises those who don’t measure up — not just by being fat, but also a poor, working-class, aging, minority or disabled.

“Fat people are the first line of defense in a political economy designed to make all people feel dissatisfied with their bodies and then exploit that dissatisfaction for profit,” she wrote. It’s not just a fight of fat people, but those of all sizes, because the starving of an entire population in the name of health threatens everyone. “What is at stake is nothing less than the freedom for all of us to be what our bodies are meant to be. We are fighting for our beings, our lives.”

The private has become public. The government, medical professionals, public health officials, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, employers, managed care providers, media and researchers have made our weights a social problem and are making money off what should be a private matter, she writes. Public initiatives over our bodies under the guise of an "obesity crisis" have become widespread and have targeted every aspect of our lives. "I believe telling people what to do with their bodies is the ultimate in limitation of the freedom of individuals." And when we blindly accept authoritative statements, rather than look to good science ourselves, we give them the power to oppress us.

Coming to appreciate our differences and the beauty of whatever body nature gave us, she writes, is to say that I get to decide what I value, what I enjoy and what I want. “A fat woman happy with her body is a dangerous thing in the current culture.” In fact, any woman happy with her body is a liberated woman...free to take up space.

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