Parental Influence Takes Precedence Over Barbie and the Media

By Abigail Natenshon, MA LCSW, GCFP

Walk down the corridor of any junior high or high school today, and you are bound to see clusters of stick-thin youngsters “sprayed” into skin-tight clothing, some showing the skin of a pancake-flat belly; their shoes elevate them high off the ground in an effort to accentuate the very long, very lean look. These figures are reminiscent of the Barbie dolls so many of them played with not too many years before. When I grew up as a youngster in the 1950’s, dolls were basically of two types; there were baby and toddler dolls, the ones that little girls nurtured and cared for, emulating and role modeling after their own mothers as they practiced becoming compassionate and giving adults one day. The other category included dolls from around the world, bedecked in the costume of her country, the representative of a culture.

Barbie holds the distinction of being the first doll to become an adult figure in the child’s life, needing precious little in the way of care taking from her child owner. She became an icon, a role model, a figure to be emulated and revered, transforming the child’s role of caretaker to one of the passive bystander and observer of a creature who had made it in life and had it all. She would ultimately become a representative of our own culture. Mothers, as well as their daughters took in Barbie’s messages about how shape and size matters at the very brink of our society’s revolution for women who were becoming liberated, entering the professions in greater numbers, becoming divorced, participating in the sexual revolution, blending families, and abandoning mealtimes and family rituals in favor of work force and the work out. Barbie, along with England’s Twiggy in the 60’s, led the way to create what was to become the new standard of beauty in the female figure.

If she were alive, Barbie would be a woman standing 7 feet tall with a waistline of 18 inches and a bustling of 38-40. In fact, she would need to walk on all fours just to support her peculiar proportions. Yet media advertising, television and Hollywood would reinforce her message, influencing what would become the American ideal of beauty. By the time a girl is 17 years old, she has received over 250,000 such commercial messages through the media. Body image disturbances, typically the result of such exposure, are clearly dangerous to our youth not just because their preoccupation precludes clarity of thought, the ability to concentrate and learn, and attaining the developmental milestones of childhood, but also because they typically lead to the fear of being overweight, and therefore to dieting and food restriction, to becoming malnourished and/or excessively thin, and ultimately to the onset of clinical eating disorders. Eating disorders are the most lethal of all of the mental health disorders, killing or maiming 6-13% of their victims, 87% of whom are under the age of 20.

Do Barbie and the media influence how young people think about themselves? Undoubtedly. Our kids are a generation that has been brought up watching the emaciated stars of Hollywood and television sitcoms. 65% of American youngsters have their own TV in their bedroom, with unlimited access to view influences that are less than healthy. Too many kids grow up believing that what they see on the screen is what women and girls are supposed to look like. And America is not alone. During the last decade, a study by Dr. Anne Becker in the Fiji Islands showed that when television first came to that part of the world airing shows such as Melrose Park and 90210, there was to develop an appreciable incidence of anorexia and bulimia among this country’s women and girls, where before, the disease had been virtually non-existent.

Statistics have shown that 50% of ads in teen girl magazines and 56% of TV commercials aimed at female viewers used beauty as a product appeal. In a recent survey by Teen People magazine, 27% of girls affirmed that the media pressures them to have a perfect body. 68% of girls in a study of Stanford undergraduates and graduate students felt worse about their own appearance after looking through women’s magazines. The number one wish for girls 11 to 17 is to be thinner. Girls as young as age 5 have expressed fears of getting fat. In a survey of elementary school students, girls commented that they would prefer to live through a nuclear holocaust, lose both of their parents or get sick with cancer rather than be fat. 80% of 10 year olds have been on diets. Of these, less than twenty percent are actually overweight. A 1984 study (Rodin, Silberstein and Striegl-Moore found that children view good-looking peers as smarter and friendlier than unattractive peers…and assume them to be happier and more successful.

The Internet too, has become a major source of influence for our young women. Controversial pro-anorexic web sites proliferate throughout the Internet, despite the campaign to have them removed from the larger search engines. The pro-anorexic sites are places which motivate and instruct viewers how to become the best anorexics they can be. A number of my eating disorder patients have admitted that these sites were the trigger or inspiration for bad eating habits, bad attitudes, and body image concerns to cross the line into clinical disease. Is every thin youngster anorexic? No. Is every thin youngster who got to be that way through dieting or restricting food a candidate to develop anorexia? Yes.

Parents do make a difference.

At the same time that our media is influencing our youth, even more significantly, it is also influencing their parents. In the end, little girls grow up to become women and mothers of their own little girls. Many parents struggle with their own dysfunctions around body image and eating. As role models for their youngsters, even healthy normal women typically experience body image distress today. 75% of normal women think they are overweight. 90% of women overestimate their body size, and 50% of American women are currently dieting.

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