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Posted: Nov 29, 2005 16:59


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Fall/Winter 2005
By: Jan Kaufman
J Group Advertising For Daughters, Ink.
A publication of New Horizons For Young Women

Editors Note: The following article was originally published by Daughters Ink. and submitted on November 9, 2005 to Woodbury Reports, Inc. by Audrey Peavey, Admissions Director, New Horizons For Young Women, Orrington, ME, 800-916-9755.

We see them everyday and everywhere: models and celebrities with thin hips, perfect breasts, great hair and flawless complexions. And though somewhere in us we know the truth — their perfection is largely the result of airbrushing, implants, hair weaves, make-up gurus and special lighting — we all long to look just like them.

Why do these images hold so much power over us? And why are they so prevalent?

According to the many experts who’ve studied the topic, the answer to the second question is easy: by constantly imposing impossible-to-reach standards of beauty on women, the cosmetic and diet industries create a never-ending market for their products and ensure skyrocketing sales — into the billions — every year. And by selling the ideal of youth and beauty along with everything from toothpaste to jeans, most every industry can boost profits.

But, the same experts say, exposure to these messages affects more than product sales. The constant barrage of thin bodies and youthful faces influences the body image and self-esteem of both women and girls who feel they’ll never measure up.

Real bodies come in all shapes and sizes — the average woman today stands about 5’4”and weighs 140 pounds — so most of us will never look like the 5’10,” 110-pound models we see in the media every day.

In fact, according to author Jean Kilbourne (Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel), the ideal image is even more unrealistic than it was 20 years ago, thanks to thinner-than-ever models and digital altering.

“They can now take a model and make a composite woman,” said Kilbourne during a recent NPR interview. “The pressure on girls that has existed for a long time is worse than ever because the ideal image is now completely, inhumanly impossible to achieve.” New Horizons Clinical Director Eilean MacKenzie agrees.

“Most girls who come into our program struggle with body image issues,” she says. “These idealized images of beauty have become so much a part of their lives, many girls don’t think critically about them.”

But, while constant comparison to Britney Spears or Victoria’s Secret models certainly contributes to body image problems and even eating disorders, MacKenzie maintains that’s not usually the whole story.

“Almost every girl who comes to New Horizons says she’s been dieting,” says MacKenzie. “When I ask why, I hear about the MTV videos and pop culture stars and all the images that are so different from the traditional female body. But most girls say they actually started worrying about their weight when their parents somehow conveyed the message that thin is important — and that heavy means less worthwhile.”

MacKenzie then cites author Nancy Snyderman (Girl in the Mirror), who’s research shows that about 80 percent of today’s mothers are on a diet or really pushing themselves at a gym to lose weight. “Girls see that,” says MacKenzie.

And, while she’s all for exercise and healthy eating habits, what worries MacKenzie is the growing perception that high-power, competent women are slim and fit, while heavier women are dowdy and inefficient.

“These messages aren’t just being sent out by the media, but by many of today’s parents, and the kids don’t miss them,” she says. “The father of one of our girls just couldn’t come to terms with the fact that his daughter wasn’t thin and a traditionally attractive teenager. And she knew that.

“Somehow today, a child with good looks has become a status symbol. Parents feel their kids’ appearance is a reflection on them and the family.”

Then there is the third tier of the issue: girls who have suffered some form of physical abuse or sexual assault and try to regain control of their lives by what they do to their bodies — and by what they do and don’t eat.

“Everyone is bombarded by media images,” says MacKenzie, “but many resist them. When a young girl goes to an extreme in her dress, or parents see a major shift in eating habits, they should be asking what else is going on.”

According to MacKenzie, that’s just where New Horizons begins with all the girls in the program.

“Our first step is to find out about the underlying issues of any problem. When a young woman really starts talking, we’ve made a good start towards helping her.”

In the forefront of MacKenzie’s memory is a girl who came into the New Horizons program with a variety of issues: along with an eating disorder, she had been dressing provocatively, acting out sexually and had become very disorganized in her personal life.

“If parents see these kinds of things, they may want to look below the surface. It’s not about the clothes or the food; it’s about regaining some control.”

So the question becomes, how was it lost?

This young woman, says MacKenzie, had been raped when she was 13 and again at 16 — and until she told her counselor at New Horizons, no one knew. Her body image and actions reflected her shame and fear.

“Like many of the girls we work with, she felt the way she dressed and what she ate gave her some control,” says MacKenzie.

But not real control.

And that’s what disturbs MacKenzie most about the body image issue: young girls spend so much energy worrying about their outward appearance and believing their looks define them that they never develop inner strength — or believe they can.

So, New Horizons troubleshoots for that right away.

The girls all eat three balanced meals a day, wear the same season specific clothes, and go for the natural woman look — no one shaves their legs, blow dries their hair, wears jewelry or uses makeup.

“We actually had a 14-year-old girl who cried for hours because she couldn’t use her Chanel lip gloss,” says MacKenzie.” All the girls struggle at first, but then they realize they’re all wearing overalls, and they aren’t competing with anyone to look good.

Instead, they’re working on learning the skills they need to make it down the river in a canoe or across a frozen lake on snowshoes.

“And they feel so great when they succeed,” says MacKenzie. “No matter what their shape or size, they’re learning to look inside and find what they’re capable of doing, and that’s what really matters.”

It’s an invaluable lesson, as illustrated by part of a recent letter from Jennifer G. to the New Horizons staff:

“My first week at New Horizons, I felt as though I had hit rock bottom. Being away from my family and friends took a lot of getting used to. Then one day, when we were doing a seven mile hike on a frozen lake with a wind speed of 25 mph, I just stopped and looked around and couldn’t believe what I was doing. I felt amazing and confident. For the first time in my life I felt as if I could accomplish anything, and I was so excited to feel this way. Life suddenly had promise. My fear of life was gone.”

And that’s just what the girls who come to New Horizons learn: inner strength and confidence aren’t things you can buy in a bottle or have airbrushed in — and, in fact, they just might be easiest to discover when you’re wearing overalls and a parka.

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