Unhealthy rites of spring

'Lenting' by teenage girls reflects a sick obsession with food and weight issues

May 25, 2010|By Maggie Tennis

"Will you split a mini-muffin with me? I couldn't possibly eat a whole one. I'll look like a pregnant whale at prom!"

Walk into many school hallways in the month leading up to prom, graduation and beach week and you will hear girls — most of them at a seemingly healthy weight — discussing their personal travails of "lent." Most people understand Lent to be the period of abstention prior to Easter. Prom, beach week and graduation "lent" are the unofficial periods of dieting and intense exercise prior to cherished high school milestones.

I've watched a beautiful girl stare at a tray of baked goods, ignoring the birthday party festivities surrounding her, as she implores another girl to share a cupcake with her. When she was refused, she justified her decision to eat the cupcake by announcing that she skipped lunch. Another girl I know was craving a KFC double down. She ate it, but only after proclaiming it was all she planned to put in her stomach that day. Other girls spend hours at the gym, at the expense of schoolwork and health — all for the sake of looking slimmer in a bikini, or for taking a good picture at pre-prom.

As a high school senior anticipating my graduation in June, I believe these actions of my peers are damaging. They perpetuate this country's obsession with body image and seem to encourage women's dissatisfaction with their appearance.

My peers could argue that the type of dieting that occurs before big events is not harmful. However, an authoritative health study shows that 35 percent of "normal dieters" advance to pathological eating. Of those, as many as a quarter progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders. Society pays a great deal of attention to the ill effects of obesity but too often ignores the life-threatening aspects of disordered eating.

This pattern is noticeable in high schools. Many girls are terrified of appearing "overweight," even though fit and healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. This anxiety seems to peak in the weeks before high school milestones.

I have a problem with this phenomenon, and not only because I fear for my friends' physical and psychological health. My difficulty with "lenting" is its ability to dominate conversation throughout the spring. Weight and food and calories are discussed constantly. Like a disease, this dangerous type of thinking infects the minds of other girls. "Lenting," and the obsession surrounding it, often culminates in a post-lent binge, which is just as unhealthy as the behavior that precedes it.

Perhaps we put too much of an emphasis on high school milestones. I know we put too much of an emphasis on outward appearances. But when did how she looks at beach week become the defining feature of a girl's existence, so that she feels the need to abstain from sweets and starches for the entire month of May?

Ironically, "lenting" could potentially lead to weight gain, according to Victoria Eisner, an expert on nutrition and eating disorders at the Center for Body, Movement & Mindfulness-based Therapy in Baltimore. Restricting intake will cause the metabolism to slow, Ms. Eisner explained. Then, when overeating occurs after the "lent," the body will not be able to burn extra calories as effectively as before.

"As women, we should be encouraged to accept who we are, how we show up in the world, because we are not all genetically engineered to be thin," said Ms. Eisner. Her solution? Shift the focus off of body image and on to living healthy lives. The message we should be sending is that "fit and healthy" manifests in many different body types.

It may be too late to prevent girls from participating in "lent" this season, but I appeal to female underclassmen to discontinue these bizarre behaviors. Instead, use that energy to develop healthy habits now. Your body and your sanity will thank you.

And even if you continue to be preoccupied with body image, please at least stop discussing it. Frankly, I'm sick of hearing about your pride over not eating that mini-muffin.

Maggie Tennis is a senior at Friends School of Baltimore, where she edited the school newspaper, and an incoming freshman at Brown University. Her e-mail is margaret_tennis@g.brown.edu.

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