My first public panic attack happened in the fourth grade when a girl brought her ringneck snake to school for pet day. Calling it a snake was generous—as its length and width more closely resembled a worm—but nevertheless, I was the only kid in class that could not handle it. I remember feeling embarrassed, sitting puffy-eyed and short of breath in the hallway, and it wasn’t until some other girl freaked out over a tree frog that I realized that everyone is afraid of something.
But more common than the fear of the dark, tree frogs or even ringneck snakes, is the fear that afflicts over 80 percent of 10-year- old girls: the fear of being fat.
“In fourth grade I was bullied by a group of girls who used to comment on how fat my stomach was,” said an anonymous CHS junior, under the pseudonym of Margo. “I wore a belt, and I would tighten it all the way until all my stomach was sucked in.”
According to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 51 percent of nine- and ten-year-olds feel better about themselves if they are on a diet. But what exactly do these diets look like?
“I would eat for three days, and then just drink water for four. Occasionally I would have a smoothie or some very low calorie snack,” said Margo. “I was exhausted. I didn’t really keep it up for that long because I got so tired. I didn’t sleep a lot. I lost a lot of hair.”
Some of the most common effects of restrictive diets, according to Dr. Kay Schlegel-Pratt—a nutritionist at Essential Nutrition in Chapel Hill—are “specific deficiencies of nutrients like protein, vitamins or minerals that are not adequate,” which can often lead to fatigue and physical weakness.
“When a person loses weight rapidly, they are losing fat and lean body mass,” said Schlegel-Pratt, also adding that “typically, rapid weight loss results in weight gain after ending the diet.”
The depletion of lean body mass is extremely dangerous, especially for growing teenagers, whose bodies can see long-term effects from stunted muscle, bone and organ growth. These diets are also often unsuccessful; Margo’s restrictive dieting followed a similar progression.
“Over time I did gain the weight back, and I would feel the need to binge,” said Margo. “You’re going to eventually break, either by going to the hospital or by trying to eat everything at once because you’ve become so tired and worn down.”
To safely manage a healthy weight, Schlegel-Pratt recommended “focusing on long-term health habits that you can keep for life” over extreme and harmful dieting techniques.
Although Margo stopped extreme calorie restriction, she still experiences social pressure to stay thin. The root of the prob- lem, it seems, is the culture that creates the ideals that these girls strive towards.
“I feel huge pressure [from] a lot of social media,” said Margo, referencing popular Instagram models.
Vast discrepancies exist between the media’s representations of the average woman and the actual average woman; according to the Center for Disease Control, the average model is 5’10’’ tall and weighs 110 pounds, while the average American woman is 5’4’’ and weighs 144 pounds.
These standards set up an almost impossible threshold to meet, and many girls grow up with misleading ideas of what it means
to look normal. “It’s not a positive mindset to have,” said Margo, regarding distorted body image. “If you want to lose weight, you need to find a safe plan for you to follow.”
Margo admitted that shifting your mindset is not an easy task. Since birth, girls are conditioned to believe that the closer you come to a specific body standard, the closer you come to being beautiful.
According to anonymous CHS senior—under the pseudonym of Arden— to begin to change the culture, we must change the language.
“It’s common to compliment young girls on their fashion sense before their abilities,” said Arden. “Comments like ‘What a pretty dress!’ can be beneficial to a girl’s self esteem, until she begins to hear those more than ‘What a thoughtful comment,’ or ‘What a beautiful art piece.’”
De-emphasizing the importance of outward image, according to Arden, is an important step in creating a culture that no longer values these dangerous standards.
“There’s this one line from a poem by Rupi Kaur that says ‘I want to apologize to all the women I have called beautiful before I’ve called them intelligent or brave,’ and I think that’s really relevant, especially in this conversation. By disconnecting the aesthetics of a woman’s body from her worth as a person with our language, we can begin to work towards a future where that sentiment actually holds true in our culture.”
Illustration by Nina Scott-Farquharson