RX for Teens in Diet Danger: Healthier Magazines

A study in the journal Pediatrics has finally come up with the data to prove what seems obvious: women's magazines screaming diet messages are bad for the health of girls and teens. Sheila Gibbons presses editors to heed the medical warning.

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)--It's January. Among those trying to stick to a weight-loss resolution for 2007 are many female teens and their little sisters, some of whom will do dangerous things to try to reach a magic dress size or weight.

It turns out that keeping them away from magazine articles on dieting and weight loss could be the best way to keep them from sacrificing their health or even in some cases their lives on the altar of thinness.

Eating disorders can have significant medical complications, such as heart problems, electrolyte imbalance and even death; there is a mortality rate of 5.6 percent per decade for those diagnosed with anorexia, according to the British medical journal the Lancet. It's estimated that bulimia and anorexia affect 1 to 2 percent of female adolescents and adults, and partial syndrome rates as high as 15 percent have been reported, according to the journal Eating Behaviors.

A number of studies have shown a relationship between adolescents who regularly read fashion magazines, with their thin-ideal images, and eating disorders. A study in the January 2007 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is the first to show, however, that frequent reading about dieting can do long-lasting harm, predicting unhealthy weight-control behaviors five years later for female adolescent girls, though not their male counterparts.

The study also found that the odds of engaging in unhealthy weight-control behaviors (fasting, skipping meals, smoking cigarettes) were twice as high for adolescent girls who frequently read magazine articles about dieting and weight loss than for those who did not read such articles.

Among the highest-frequency readers of magazine articles on dieting and weight loss, the incidence of extreme weight-control behaviors (such as vomiting or using laxatives) was three times higher compared with nonreaders.

The authors, of the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, recommend "interventions aimed at reducing exposure to, and the importance placed on, media messages regarding dieting and weight loss."

Fix-Your-Body Messages Abound

With that recommendation in mind I just paid a visit to Borders Books and Music in downtown Washington, D.C., and Barnes and Noble in Bethesda, Md., to see what reducing exposure to magazine weight-loss exhortations would involve. The answer: sweeping just about every woman's lifestyle magazine and most that target teens off the shelves.

Since female teens tend to read "up"--that is, a 17-year-old isn't reading Seventeen, but is more likely looking at Glamour and Cosmo--consider the cover lines staring them in the face:

"50 Shortcuts to a Sexier Body" (Glamour)

"6 Ways to Thin -- Easy Diets That Really Work" (Allure)

"Lose 8 Pounds This Month -- And Win Spa, Skin Care and Exercise Products" (Self Special Weight Loss Issue)

"Get A Bikini Body by Spring!" (Shape)

"Drop the Weight for Good" (Redbook)

And on the teen rack:

"Get the Body You Want" (Seventeen)

"236 Ways to Rock Your Looks" (Teen)

"Get Hotter Abs, Legs and Butt -- Now!" (CosmoGirl)

Boy-Fixated Theme

Teen magazines are concerned with boys, makeup, boys, hair, boys, clothes and boys.

That doesn't leave a lot of room for stories about health. Those in the issues I read are usually associated with achieving a "better" body. I suppose the editors believe if that's what it takes to get girls to read about healthy nutritional habits, then that's a useful way to frame the discussion. For example:

"Beauty-Full Eats--part of looking good on the outside is putting good stuff inside. So eat a healthy, balanced diet and get a beauty boost from these good-for-you foods." This half-page item in CosmoGirl (February 2007) then listed the best foods for hair, skin, nails and smile.

In Teen Vogue (February 2007), a profile of actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead contained this large-type quote, "I'm a size 6. I consider myself to be a pretty normal girl." Winstead says she's resisting pressure to be a size 0 or 2, the dress size of "the majority of girls in Hollywood," adding that "the most important thing is to be healthy and fit."

Great, but what do teen readers larger than a size 6 think when they read this, or view the ads and see the photos accompanying stories of size 0 and 2 models and celebrities?

It's not as though weight control isn't an important issue for women and girls. Yesterday, a study was published in the Journal of Pediatrics that showed that overweight pre-teens are 11 to 30 times more likely to be obese as adults and face a higher risk of heart disease. But magazines should approach that issue with care.

To its credit, Teen Vogue carried a "nutrition special" warning against fad diets and alerting readers to the symptoms of eating disorders. And CosmoGirl ran a harrowing story, "21 Days to Save Her Life," about a young woman's treatment for anorexia and bulimia. The story included a full-page photo of her pulling up her T-shirt to reveal the feeding tube that keeps her alive, inserted into her tiny waist just above her bejeweled navel.

However, even these serious probes of extreme weight-loss behaviors can be misused by vulnerable readers as blueprints for further reducing their already low weight, as Brigham Young University researchers found in a 2001 study.

But that doesn't mean editors' hands are tied on this issue. Editors can do quite a lot, actually. And given the distressing findings of the new Pediatrics study on the downside of magazine-dispensed dieting advice, they shouldn't wait to make substantive changes.

Correcting a Bad Course

For starters, they can mute the cover lines that scream, "Lose weight now!" and cease touting short cuts to healthy weight. Instead, they should show readers how attention to fitness can be incorporated into ordinary young women's lives, not teen icons such as Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen and other celebrities whose daily lives and routines are far different from that of the average teen.

It's interesting that tennis great Maria Sharapova eats like a horse and exercises five hours a day, as Teen Vogue told us, but how many young women can do that?

Editors also can do a much better job connecting beauty with health rather than with thinness. Former YM editor Christina Kelly in 2002 banned diet stories from the magazine and pledged to begin using models of various shapes and sizes. She received volumes of grateful correspondence from readers but unfortunately, after Conde Nast bought YM in October 2004, it shut down the magazine, although it continues to operate the YM.com Web site.

Editors can also integrate more average- and plus-size girls and women into their editorial features and fashion layouts, too. CosmoGirl did a one-page profile of a plus-size young African American woman, quoting her on the innate beauty of the larger female form. The headline said that "big is definitely beautiful," but you wouldn't know that from looking through the rest of CosmoGirl.

Girls and teens love their magazines, which means the grownups who edit them need to take a long, hard look at what they're saying about weight control and body image.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc., which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers.

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