Don't Be Manipulated, Middle Schoolers!

How many of you have:

. . . watched a show, or read a magazine, and thought, “I want to look like that”?

. . . changed what you eat or how you work out to try to change your body shape?

. . . commented on someone else’s image on social media? 

. . . avoided doing an activity out of fear over how you will look?

Few hands went unraised at the Middle School assembly last Friday when Sarah Bennett ’95 and Erin Wolf Barnett, health professionals and body image experts, posed these questions to students. The two were there to “unpack” myths and negative feelings young people so easily pick up about their physical appearance through nonstop exposure to unrealistic standards pushed out through movies, magazines, social media, and other unavoidable outlets.

Sarah, a licensed clinical psychologist for children, adolescents, and adults in the Washington, DC, area, provides family-based therapy for eating disorders. She also provides clinical supervision to doctoral students as an adjunct clinical faculty member at The George Washington University.

Erin is the founder of CenteRD Nutrition LLC; she provides pediatric and adult nutrition services, specializing in all types of eating disorders, sports nutrition, and weight management.

The pair centered their talk around a video made by Gail Krotky’s Upper School Women and Gender Studies class. In it, Jordan Merlin-Jones ’16 tries to fend off a deluge of messages from “society” about how she should look and act, including always being “a lady,” shaving her legs, wearing makeup, and more. Afterward, in commenting about the pressure being put on Jordan, a student shared that, “It was never about her happiness or her well-being. It was all about how she presented herself.”

Sarah agreed. “That’s so common. The media manipulates us a quite a bit.”

Manipulation, in fact, was one of the key concepts the pair wanted students to take to heart.

“What goes into making those images [of perfect people] is so much that you can’t see,” she said, queueing up two videos that trended on social media to prove her point. The first video featured a muscular, bare-chested male model posing as he was rapidly transformed to an even higher level of so-called “perfection” by digitally adding tanned skin, a longer chin, wider shoulders, thicker biceps, clearer skin, and even rounder areolae. In a second video, an average-looking female is made into cover model material when everything from her eye color to the shape of her cheeks is altered.

When a gorgeous face or body is just a click away, and is then shared out to the world, “no wonder our perception of beauty is distorted,” Erin said.

Another takeaway for students: The main determinants of how we look are our genes. If you were born to parents who are both 5’4” and stocky, the odds of you being able to look like Kendall Jenner or Tyson Beckford—no matter how little you eat or how much you work out—are not in your favor. Genes even control the thickness of our bones and how far apart certain muscles are, things which cannot be controlled. (This explains why the currently popular idea of “thigh gap”—visible space between a female’s upper thighs while her legs are together—is “total rubbish. Your thigh muscle and pelvic bone determine this!” Sarah said.

Students learned about the dangers of dieting, to which 13-year-olds are particularly susceptible. Most knew the relationship between eating disorders and improper dieting but seemed surprised to hear about hair loss, delayed growth, inability to sleep, decreased concentration, and poor sports performance.

“How many calories have you heard that you should be getting each day?” Erin asked. Two thousand, most students replied. “On average, you need 500 calories or even more than that on a daily basis,” she said. When she showed a slide that depicted a trio of meals for an average middle schooler’s day, students cheered at the amount of food piled onto the plate (and especially appreciated the fact that a big bowl of ice cream was included).

“Should we be tracking our weight?” a student asked, to which Erin immediately said no. “Trust your own body and do not listen to the media. You know your body the best. That’s the best [takeaway] we can give you guys.”

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