Blame it on their friends! (Don’t we always?) But wait, it’s not that simple.
In all of my writing about my struggles with anorexia, orthorexia and general bad-self-image-exia, I have come to notice something interesting. Particularly something interesting about you. Every time I write about eating disorders or the pressure to be thin, the majority of you sympathize right along with me but there are always a few – and probably more in the lurkers section, Hi Guys!!! – that seem to have no idea what I’m talking about.
Man. I read things like this and wondered how in the world I made it through my teenage years having relatively little idea about eating disorders, or worrying about being thinner.
Frankly, I was as baffled too. For me, the culture of thin was omnipresent growing up. I can’t remember ever not caring about my weight. Most of my friends were subsumed in the same way. And yet it was different for some of you. I think I might have an answer.
Goths, Preps, Mods, Jocks, Stoners, Slackers and Beanie Baby Collectors
According to a new study from the Children’s National Medical Center in D.C., which peer group a girl most identifies with greatly influences her body image attitudes and dieting behaviors. So you can call your mom and say “I told you so” – apparently it IS that important who you sat next to in the cafeteria.
Want to know the group most at risk for disordered eating? I’ll wait for you to write down your guesses. You will be surprised. Cheerleaders with their tiny skirts and high-flying tricks? Nope. Cross country runners who are known for their litheness and speed? No again. The Perfect Girls who wore only Abercrombie & Fitch (or Girbauds in my day) and shopped for a living? No, no, no.
This may be one of the saddest sentences I have ever had to write: the girls most at risk for low self esteem and disordered eating were the girls who associated with no group. The loners. The losers. The outcasts. It makes sense in a slit-my-wrists kind of way. Because what better way to try and fit in to a culture that rejects you then to embrace their predominant ideal?
The next most likely group to be disordered were the ones who identified themselves as “alternatives,” meaning those who put themselves outside the mainstream as “non-conformists” which at my school meant the artsy kids, the drama kids (who were also stoners), the hippie kids (who were also stoners), the skaters (who were also stoners), the straight-edgers (who would beat you up if you were a stoner), the punks (who loved stoners) and the goths (who avoided drugs because it might take the edge of their pain).
Me? I started in the former group (the loners) and moved to the latter (the goths). No wonder I was messed up! I picked the two worst groups to be in as far as body image was concerned – which I would have heartily denied at the time despite the fact that many of my friends were active cutters and/or spent a lot of time listening to The Cure. Not to mention the alcoholics. Let’s just say I’ve heard more than my fair share of bad poetry.
Girls who identified as “Jocks”, had relatively few body image or dieting problems, seemingly unconcerned about their weight. Hard to be a State champion sprinter if you’re listless, weak and cold all the time. (But add a side order of eyeliner and you’ve got Emo to go!)
The “Burnouts,” defined as the girls who “skipped school and often got into trouble” provided the only moment of humor in this study by recognizing that while their peers probably highly valued beauty and thinness, they couldn’t be bothered to care. Probably because they had other things to worry about. Like juvie.
The part that I found most fascinating about this research was that it didn’t matter which group the girls actually fell into but only which group they most identified themselves with. So the Homecoming Queen might end up bingeing and purging in the locker room despite her popularity because she identifies herself as a loner while the geek with head gear might actually graduate with her self esteem intact because she has three really awesome friends and knows it.
It tells me that we need to be paying a lot more attention to how girls define themselves and less to how they define each other. We need to be looking less at how they stare at celebrities and more at what they see when they look in the mirror.
And we need to get more of our girls in sports. (But not gymnastics or figure skating. But that’s another story for another day.)