Girls Finding Resilience In An Anxious Body Culture



By: Heather Wingert

Girls in America are bombarded with confusing messages about dieting, weight, and health. Last week, standing in the grocery check out line, I noticed the featured stories of a popular woman’s magazine concerned jeans that make you look ten pounds thinner, healthy food rules to live by, and a recipe for a do-it-yourself chocolate decadent triple fudge dessert. Mixed messages about indulgence and restraint related to food and our bodies are seen and felt by everyone. No one is immune to the cultural prescription telling us that we need to worry about becoming fat.


Driving home from Atlanta, I noticed a distracting billboard of a frowning girl, her hands crossed in front of her chest. The headline under the girl read in bleeding red caps: WARNING: CHUBBY KIDS MAY NOT OUTLIVE THEIR PARENTS. This extreme advertising is part of Strong4Life, an ad campaign in Georgia exposing the health concerns related to the rise in obesity amongst youth. As a psychotherapist working in the field of eating and body image concerns, I think a campaign like this reinforces shame and bullying related to weight and contributes to culture’s attack on the body. This type of cultural attitude reflects a deep fear of fat. As a consequence, according to a recent poll, over a quarter of children under the age of ten have been bullied for their weight. There is a more humane approach to relating to our bodies that we are not seeing in the media. How is a girl to navigate such ambiguous messages about her body and her health? Weight and health are much more complicated than we are educated to believe.


Today, more than half of Americans are dieting to lose weight, and that number is steadily increasing amongst our youth. One in seven children admits to being on a constant diet and over a third is influenced by a “diet-obsessed society,” according to a recent OnePoll survey. Increased anxiety in our culture surrounding weight has led to disordered eating attitudes and dieting behaviors in the home. Nearly 80% of children first learn about dieting from a family member, usually a parent. Often, a family member’s dissatisfaction with their own body and appearance influences how a child treats their body.


The idealization of thinness and the stigmatization of fatness in the United States encourage an anxious preoccupation with food and weight. This limited portrait of health leaves no room for body-size diversity. Eating from an intuitive place of hunger and satiation becomes complicated by the many meanings we project on food, bodies, and health.


Because eating attitudes and behaviors associated with dieting are so common in our culture, we often don’t think of them as disordered eating. Examples of disordered eating include excessive dieting, skipping meals or fasting, overeating, feeling guilty after eating, restricting foods, dividing foods into categories of “good” and “bad,” over-exercising to compensate for eating, body dissatisfaction, and a preoccupation with food and weight. Often times, there’s a feeling of being out of control with food.


Disordered eating behaviors can progress into a clinical eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Eating disorders are real, treatable medical illnesses with complex underlying psychological and biological causes, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Of cases reported, eating disorders affect nearly ten million females and one million males each year.


Dieting behavior, a history of being teased or bullied about size or weight, and cultural pressures that glorify thinness are all preventable risk factors for developing a clinically diagnosed eating disorder. Each of these risk factors occurs in a social, cultural, and political context. Therefore, disordered eating behaviors can be interpreted as a coping strategy within an environment in which a girl is faced with limited options for psychological growth and sustainable well-being.


T.H.E. (Treatment, Healing, Education) Center for Disordered Eating in Asheville is addressing these issues in Western North Carolina. T.H.E. Center provides education and raises awareness about the dangers of disordered eating and works towards prevention of the problem. A free lending library of educational materials, weekly support groups for individuals in recovery from an eating disorder and monthly support groups for family and friends of people with an eating disorder, disordered eating, and related body issues are offered through T.H.E. Center.



The biggest cultural myth that affects body image and weight struggles is believing that the diet industry is on our side. A $60 billion-per-year diet industry thrives on selling people strategies that fail. Research has shown that 95% of all dieters who lose weight will end up regaining the weight and then some. Weight loss programs and products rely on a high failure rate to assure business and growth. Over the long-term, a dieter experiences an increase in weight gain and decrease in mental and physical health. According to Glen Gaesser, author of Big Fat Lies: The Truth about Your Weight and Your Health, dieters score higher on measures of stress and depression compared to non-dieters. They also experience greater health risks, such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes as the result of weight cycling.


The stigma of fat is perpetuated by an inaccurate measurement of health. The primary instrument used by medical health providers to measure a person’s body fat is Body Mass Index (BMI). It is also used to determine whether someone is obese. BMI is calculated by weight (in pounds) divided by height (in inches) squared, all multiplied by 703. BMI does not account for muscle mass, gender differences, age, or ethnicity, all very important predictors of total body mass composition. A BMI over 25 is considered “overweight.” Based on this measurement of health, Tom Cruise, along with his colleagues Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Will Smith, and Matthew McConaughey are considered “overweight.” Dr. Margo Maine, clinical psychologist, points out that reviewing the lack of scientific basis for the BMI illustrates our culture’s obsession with thinness and dieting. This misleading standard has determined that 65% of Americans are overweight.


We are often educated to believe that thin is healthy and fat is unhealthy. However, a growing body of evidence shows that people who are “fit and fat” have a lower mortality rate than those who are “thin and unfit.” Physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle are the main contributors to mortality, not necessarily weight.



In the early 1990s, Harvard researcher Dr. Anne Becker observed American television’s impact on indigenous Fiji adolescents. This population was not accustomed to media imagery or television prior to this study. Over a three-year span, Fiji teen girls were exposed to television shows such as 90210 and Melrose Place. They began eating less and practicing self-induced vomiting to control their weight. These eating attitudes and behaviors were not present prior to the introduction of Western media imagery. In fact, Fijian culture previously valued robust appetites and body sizes.


The advertising, media, food, diet, fashion, and cosmetic industries bank on making people feel anxious about their bodies and appetites. These messages increase body dissatisfaction, resulting in weight monitoring, controlling food intake, and coping with body image issues through disordered eating behaviors.


An economic agenda in presenting an impossible and unattainable beauty standard is big business. The diet, cosmetic, and fashion industries work diligently to advertise a difficult-to-reach thin ideal in order to profit. As long as these industries create an impossible-to-reach standard, we will buy their solutions striving to meet the standard. It’s all in the name of business, and consumers under the age of 18 have become major customers. A startling statistic taken from the Miss Representation website reveals that breast augmentations increased nearly six-fold, liposuctions quadrupled, and cosmetic surgical procedures tripled between 1997 and 2007 among youth 18 and younger.


Who is running the mainstream media show? According to the documentary film Miss Representation women today hold only 3% of clout positions in the mainstream media (telecommunications, entertainment, publishing, and advertising). The mirror society reflects back has very little female influence in shaping and creating the lens in which she sees herself. Instead, a girl learns that her value lies in her beauty, youth, and sexuality and not in her capacity to lead, become powerful, and assertive.



It is important to consider a growing girl in the social and political context of how she comes to know herself in this life. There are certain developmental experiences a girl will need to be resilient to the pressures and stresses placed on her. Here are eight strategies to help girls be resilient:


  • – A girl needs support in understanding the culture mindfully and seeing how confusing messages create a context for giving her few options. Helping a girl to be a savvy media consumer starts with asking her what she thinks about certain commercials, slimming magazines, and advertisements. Encourage her to have an opinion and a say in the matter.
  • – A girl needs experiences in which she can express control and power over more than just her body, sexuality, and appearance. Helping her identify strengths, passions, and goals that are unrelated to the body, beauty and appearance, helps her value herself within a larger context and strengthens self-worth. Who are her influences and where does she find inspiration?
  • – A girl needs experiences of making mistakes and taking healthy risks. Sharing a mistake and risk you took in your life to get you where you are today is important to her learning to value opportunities and not being afraid of failure. As Anais Nin says, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
  • – Grow a garden. Planting seeds and watching them grow cultivates a new relationship to food, the body, and her connection to the Earth and seasons. It’s a wonderful way to counter media’s messages and spend time together.
  • – A girl needs to see adults ditching diets and tossing out the scales. Pay attention to how you take care of yourself: body, mind, and spirit. Nonverbal cues related to eating behaviors, the body and food speak loudly. Mirror to her behaviors of loving-kindness and compassion toward your own body and relationship to food. Carefully consider your own weight biases and how they might contribute to size discrimination.
  • – Go for a walk with her. Moving the body increases oxygen to the brain and facilitates conversation. Sometimes it’s difficult to sit and talk about feelings and struggles. Instead, going for a walk can inspire dialogue.
  • – A girl needs to experience what brings meaning, purpose, and connection to her life. Practicing gratitude; being in nature; exploring positive belief systems; traveling and experiencing different cultures; creating friendships; celebrating the body for what it can do, not for how it looks; and sharing meals with family are ways to move her closer to her own connectedness with herself, the community and the world.
  • – A girl grows, changes, and becomes resilient in relationship. When she is seen and heard for whom she is and what she brings to the world, she can experience a feeling of being connected. Sometimes the most important thing we can do is listen for what she’s feeling, saying, or not saying.


Heather Wingert is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Asheville. Her interests as a psychotherapist have evolved around feminist theory and psychodynamic theory. She is also Assistant Director for T.H.E. Center for Disordered Eating in Asheville. She can be reached at (828) 333-2426.,





On the evening of Monday, March 26, 2012, T.H.E. Center for Disordered Eating will be bringing together WNC leaders in government, media, and education to respond to the documentary, Miss Representation, at UNC Asheville’s Wilma Sherrill Center. Women Standing UP & Standing OUT is a distinguished panel discussion including Terry M. Bellamy, Mayor of Asheville; Keith Bramlett, Lecturer, UNC Asheville Department of Sociology; Darcel Grimes, Anchor, WLOS ABC 13; and Jess McCuan, Editor, VERVE magazine, following the screening of Miss Representation.

Written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the film exposes how mainstream media contribute to the limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, especially women in positions of power and influence in America. The screening will begin at 5:30PM followed by a reception and panel discussion concluding at 8:15PM. Co-sponsors for this event are UNC Asheville Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies Program; NC Center for Creative Retirement; UNC Asheville HOLA; UNC Asheville Student Activities and Integrative Learning (S.A.I.L).; NC Center for Health and Wellness; and UNC Asheville Department of Health and Wellness.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker