For girls on art tour, a weighty lesson

BMA: A museum tour for girls on female beauty and body image helps shake up the idea that thin equals beautiful.

February 28, 2000|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

They're not even 12 yet, but many of these Baltimore-area girls worry about being fat. Some have already tried diets. But yesterday, taking in artworks a few centuries old, they considered the idea that thin doesn't always mean beautiful.

Their hair in ponytails, their emerald-green Girl Scout vests on, some holding lollipops, the girls quietly stared at an African female figure with large drooping breasts, a sign the woman had born children and fed them. They looked up at a Dutch painting of three nude women with plentiful tummies and hips, a mark of health and wealth.

And gradually, as they walked through the Baltimore Museum of Art, they began to make connections. Gazing at the piercing, liquid eyes of a pale widow, a tour guide asked them why the woman might be so skinny.

"She's so sad, maybe she can't eat?" asked Alix Surber, 11, one of a dozen girls from Troop 1597 from Davidsonville in Anne Arundel County. Beth Williams-Plunkett, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, nodded.

"Usually, losing weight is a sign something is very wrong," Williams-Plunkett said, "that you're sick or depressed."

Begun five years ago at the BMA through the sponsorship of Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, a national nonprofit group, the tour on female beauty and body image has spread to a dozen other sites around the country. Guides try to get visitors to think differently about their bodies and the images they're bombarded with in magazines and on television, from swimsuit issues to "Ally McBeal."

"We're using art to shake up this idea that thin equals beautiful," said Williams-Plunkett, who is in private practice in Towson and Ellicott City.

It's an annual event, but after more than 130 people showed up yesterday, including scores of Girl Scouts -- by far the program's largest draw here -- the museum is considering making it a more frequent feature.

Studies show that body-image problems and dieting are becoming more and more pervasive. And as younger and younger children are pressured by society's rail-thin standard of beauty, causing depression, social withdrawal and, in some cases, dangerous eating disorders, experts say more programs like these are needed.

"We're seeing it in younger and younger kids," said Dr. David Herzog, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and president of the Harvard Eating Disorders Center, in a telephone interview. "We live in a world culturally obsessed by this."

In a 1973 survey, 29 percent of men and 32 percent of women rated appearance as a high priority. By 1993, those figures had more than doubled. In 2000, the numbers are even higher, according to Dr. Steven Crawford, associate director of the Center for Eating Disorders at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson. He noted that his center is treating younger children, in the range of age 8 and 9.

By the time boys and girls reach grades one through three, 42 percent of them say they would like to be thinner, studies show, and half of 9- and 10-year-olds report having been on a diet. By college, 91 percent of American women have been on a diet at some point in their lives.

"The thinner you are, the more people will like you," said Carolyn Johnson, 11, of the Davidsonville troop. She said she tries to eat healthful foods and weighs herself monthly. "If you were fatter, then people would just stare. I don't want to get fat."

To reach the younger girls, the Harvard Eating Disorders Center started a program three years ago in which 14-year-old girls mentor 8-year-olds at 70 sites in the Northeast. The teens help the younger ones find acceptance of their bodies -- and others as well.

Despite increasing tolerance for diversity in terms of culture and race, little tolerance exists for different appearances, Herzog said. In the African-American community, where experts said appreciation for a variety of body shapes was once more prevalent, cultural pressures are starting to cause problems.

"It isn't strictly a Caucasian or a rich kid's problem," Herzog said. "What is truer and truer is that these symptoms are present across all socioeconomic classes, except in the abject poor."

Most Americans try the same remedy: dieting.

But 95 percent of the time, doctors say, diets don't work, and 90 percent of the time, the person ends up at a higher weight.

This surprised the girls and women on yesterday's tour. Williams-Plunkett also warned them that dieting slows a person's metabolism, decreases the ability to concentrate, thins hair and causes muscle loss.

Only a small number, roughly 5 percent to 10 percent of girls and women, will go on to develop eating disorders including anorexia, characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss, and bulimia, a cycle of binge eating followed by purging. But the fallout from these conditions is serious and long term, including osteoporosis, ulcers, cardiac arrhythmias, the stopping of menstrual periods and even brain shrinkage.

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