If young people can be helped to understand why the burger looks so dam good in the picture (and incidentally nothing like the real thing), then we can help them to make food choices that are independent of a marketers financial vision.
I have just finished reading an article in the Western Australian exploring the growing and very worrying body image obsession of Australian girls. Although anorexia has long been a very real concern for teenagers; current research suggests that we now have to be concerned for those as young as five or six. Author and presenter Di Wilcox reports hearing year one girls making self-damming statements about ‘feeling too fat’ or ‘not pretty enough’. She also reports cases of girls as young as seven advising their peers to ‘not eat bread’ or other carbohydrates; due to the potential of unwanted weight gain. As Di comments, not only does this raise concerns about the vulnerability of these children to future eating disorders, it speaks volumes about the loss of childhood.
Media campaigns featuring unrealistic images of slim women are often blamed for our society’s increasing obsession with trying to get thinner. In fact it seems that the skinnier the models of a society, the higher the rates of eating disorders will be. Even though research (such as that done recently by Murdoch University) tell us that peer pressure and peer comparisons fuel body obsession, I would argue that peer messages are born from the broader messages of a media driven society.
A small minority of large corporations have attempted to address the issue with a greater emphasis on accepting our bodies and our uniqueness. They have produced advertising campaigns that focus on messages of increased self-acceptance and ‘learning to love the skin you are in’. But is this enough? Moreover, is it really effective as a means of helping young people to aim for a healthy body weight?
At the other end of the eating disorder spectrum we face the equally worrying problem of increasing numbers of overweight and sedentary kids. Many primary schools across Australia are now adopting healthy eating and exercise programs in an attempt to restore the balance. In particular there is an increasing focus on healthy eating with an aim to reduce the consumption of junk food during school hours. Government led initiatives like the traffic lights system colour coding food into green (healthy food to eat in plenty), amber (OK in moderation) and red (junk food to avoid) are increasingly popular. Similarly, ‘crunch and sip’ programs encourage kids to snack on healthy fruit and vegetables throughout the school day. Programs such as these encourage kids to think about the nutritional value of what they are eating, and to make healthier food and drink choices.
At face value, both the aims of increasing self-acceptance (to prevent eating too little) and self-awareness (to prevent eating too much) seem like great and indeed necessary ideas. However, I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that when put together they can result in confusing messages for many of us. It seems that we need to simultaneously accept and love our bodies, warts and all, while making sure that we watch our weight and do not overload the bathroom scales.
In fact, according to Professor Sue Byrne, an eating disorders expert at The University of WA, even though ideas to develop a positive self-focus seem good in theory; in practice an increased focus on our body often leads to increased problems with an unhealthy body image. A bit like when you decide to go on a diet and immediately crave chocolate ice-cream. This finding has been proven when teenagers recovering from eating disorders have presented to their peers in an attempt to prevent them developing a disorder of their own. Even though the messages are positive, the increased focus on body shape and size has encouraged an overall increase in body obsession and all manner of issues with food and weight.
So, what is the answer? How do we encourage kids and teens to not simply eat the correct amount of calories, but to eat healthily? How do we protect young people from the unrealistic ideals portrayed in the media while also encouraging them to take an interest in their bodily health and wellbeing?
Sue Byrne suggests the answer lies predominantly in helping young people to become media savvy. After all, we wouldn’t want to be unrealistically thin if being unrealistically thin wasn’t promoted as desirable. Nor would we crave junk food if it wasn’t so beautifully packaged, presented and available. Billions of dollars are spent encouraging us to eat and drink foods that are bad for us. Similarly, billions of dollars are spent on encouraging us to lose weight and cover our flaws with make-up and flattering fashions.
In contrast, it seems that almost no budget exists to help us to understand and manage the impact of increasingly sophisticated advertising. To help us to understand the incredible technology behind modern day photo-shopping and the incredible budget behind ‘creative’ packaging. Rather than encouraging young people to focus on their weight in any way, we need to help them to understand how the media works, and why we are so easily influenced.
I recently learnt that a very well known brand of potato chips has just dumped all of it’s bright yellow packaging having learnt that ‘bright yellow’ apparently makes shoppers think that the chips are unhealthy for their kids to eat (very true!). The same chips are now going to be sold in healthy looking brown packages, no doubt conveying an idea of ‘nature’ and all things natural…after all what is more natural than an earthy looking potato…
If you don’t think this re-packaging will work, think how many times you choose the muesli bars in the plain beige box because they look healthier than the other ones? How many times have you been convinced of the merits of low fat (when the food was laden with sugar) or sugar free (when the food was filled with artificial sweetener)…The good news is that as soon as we are aware of the reasons behind the marketing; the reality of the ‘glamorous’ model or the recycled looking box; we can start to see through it.
If young people can be helped to understand why and how magazine pictures are photo shopped, or why the burger looks so dam good in the picture (and incidentally nothing like the real thing), then we can help them to make choices that are independent of a marketers financial vision.
In my family we try to stay away from fast food, however, on birthdays you can request any meal you like. Last week one of my three daughters turned ten. She quickly spurned offers of Peking duck or roast lamb in favour of a longed for visit to Hungry Jacks. One very dissatisfying dinner later I realized that we had all eaten our entire recommended daily calorie intake in one meal. We also all looked whiter than Ronald McDonald himself. Thank goodness birthdays are once a year. And thank goodness the adults are still in charge of the menu in our home.
Dr Helen Street