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The skinny on the flip side of obesity

Sure, obesity is a disease that needs to be prevented, but so is obsessing about body image. 'Fat' is not a description, albeit unkind, like ‘tall' or 'short', anymore. Sanchita Sharma writes.

columns Updated: Dec 08, 2013 00:45 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Ever since supermodel Kate Moss made cocaine chic — gaunt face, stick figure and sunken eyes — the beauty touchstone for women two decades ago, being clinically underweight has become what Naomi Wolf calls "The Official Body".

Sure, obesity is a disease that needs to be prevented, but so is obsessing about body image. 'Fat' is not a description, albeit unkind, like ‘tall' or 'short', anymore.

It's become an indication of personality. Being lean and/or muscular has become associated with discipline, rigour and success, while being overweight is associated with laziness, weakness and indiscipline.

So, in a world where 7.12 billion people don't look like supermodels, and about a dozen do because they lucked out on genes, impressionable girls and women continue to be bombarded each day with photoshopped images of outstandingly beautiful people.

And everyone wants to look like them. No one stops to consider that they don't have the genes needed to make them tall and lean. The result is children, mostly girls, as young as 7 internalise the thin ideal and begin a lifetime struggle to meet this unrealistic and very unhealthy standard.

This week, a new study reports that being active on social networking sites such as Facebook also fuels obsessing over body image distortion in adolescent girls.

But more than overall Facebook use, it's heavy use of photo applications that cause dissatisfaction, which can trigger eating and behavioural disorders such as anorexia, yo-yo-dieting and binge eating.

The new study found that adolescent girls' Internet "appearance exposure" — measured by the amount of time spent on websites high on appearance-focused content — was associated with greater internalisation of the thin ideal, self-objectification and weight dissatisfaction.

All research to date on body image shows that women are much more critical of their appearance than men and are much less likely to like what they see in the mirror.

Four out of five women are unhappy with their reflection and almost half of them are trying to achieve an ideal of female beauty that has become progressively more unrealistic.

In the 1920s, the physically perfect woman was about 5ft 4in tall and weighed 55 kg, the healthy weight for the height; in the ‘60s, models weighed 8% less than the average woman; now they weigh 23% less.

The current media ideal in terms of weight and size for women is achievable by less than 1% of the world's women population.

The same goes for washboard abs in men, who are increasingly falling into the body-image distortion trap. Genes dictate how well-defined your abdominal muscles or how big your triceps and pecs get without using illegal anabolic steroids.

Once people reach their maximal muscle mass, further gains come from both muscle and fat. So, men who have bigger muscles also have a higher body fat percentage.

Almost one in five (18%) teenage boys in the US were concerned enough about their weight and physique to engage in risky behaviours, reported JAMA Pediatrics last month.

Up to 31% engaged in infrequent binge eating or purging, while about 0.8% had partial or full criteria for bulimia. Almost 3% met the binge-eating disorder criterion, a condition in which binge-eating is not followed by purging, excessive exercise, or fasting.

A similar US survey of more than 2,800 middle and high school teens last year found more than two in three teen boys changed their eating habits to increase their muscle size or tone, reported the Journal of eating disorders.

While exercising should be encouraged, chronic dieting can cause several health disorders, the most common among being dehydration, nutrient deficiencies, low blood pressure, frequent infections and bad breath.

Over time, skipped meals can cause stomach inflammation, ulcers and gall bladder stones, osteoporosis, irregular periods, infertility, depression and dry skin and brittle hair.

Compared to rising obesity, body-shape obsession seems to be a lesser evil. After all, at least 2.6 million people die each year as a result of being overweight or obese, which makes obesity a bigger killer than malnutrition, shows World Health Organisation data.

More than half of India's population does not meet body mass index (BMI) — the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters (kg/m2) — standards used to classify overweight and obesity in adults.

Indians and south Asians are classified as overweight if they have a BMI equal to or more than 23, and as clinically obese if it is equal to or more than 27.

Globally, almost 1.5 billion adults are overweight or obese, but there are an equal number worrying about the way they look, an obsession that's affecting their mental health almost as much as obesity affects physical health.