Survey of teen girls shows disturbing trends

November 12, 2001

ANN ARBOR---More than half of teen-age girls think they are overweight, according to results from a recent survey. When SmartGirl.org, a Web site for teens run by the University of Michigan, ran a poll asking readers about eating disorders, 58 percent of the 737 girls and eight boys who responded said they thought they should lose weight. Even though about a third thought they were the right weight, only 14 percent were happy with their body size and shape. Fifteen was the average age of the respondents, with most falling in the 11-19 age range.

Alison Brzenchek, a health education coordinator for the University Health Service and a specialist in eating disorders, finds the results disturbing. "We know that obsession with weight loss and dissatisfaction with body image are common among American women, both college-age and older, but it's very sad to see those same trends show up in this survey. These young girls, many of whom aren't even women yet, are already going down the same road, buying into the same diet mentality, as their elders."

Asked about dieting, 63 percent of respondents said they diet with varying frequency. In answer to the question, "what influences you to diet?" 43 percent said they diet for themselves, 16 percent because of exposure to media images, 5 percent because of friends' influences, and 4 percent because of family influence. Diet pills have been purchased by 24 percent of survey respondents.

Only 1 percent of those surveyed admitted they binge and purge, but almost half knew someone with an eating disorder. In answer to the question, "what do you think causes girls to develop eating disorders?" 30 percent thought it was peer or family pressure, 30 percent attributed it to pressure from media images, 23 percent cited a poor self-image, and 6 percent thought psychological problems or the need for control were major causes, while 11 percent had no opinion.

Brzenchek says that college women generally give the same responses, though that age group tends to put media influence first and peer pressure (especially from men) second. Tiffany Marra, who manages the Web site, notes that only 30 percent of the teens surveyed thought that models seen in the media reflect unrealistic body types; 70 percent thought either that models reflect realistic body types, or said some are realistic and some are not. "The results show that this group is more likely to be unhappy with their own bodies," she says.

Marra also points out that only 23 percent of respondents thought they learned enough about eating disorders in school, while another 24 percent said they had learned a little at school, but that teachers should go into the topic in more depth. Others thought it should be discussed as early as sixth- or seventh-grade, while some even suggested special assemblies to increase awareness of the problem.

Brzenchek says that is not enough. "Schools need to help give young women something else to focus on besides their weight, to help them come up with concrete things to do when they find themselves getting obsessive about their bodies," she says. "It could be yoga, it could be music, it could be athletics or activism."

"We need to get young people to think about food in terms of its nutritional value, not in terms of calories and weight loss," she says.

Billed as the Web site "for girls who know how to decide for themselves what they want," SmartGirl (http://www.smartgirl.org/) features reviews of movies, music, books, Websites magazines, computer games, beauty and body care products, catalogs, and television programs, all written by and for teen-age girls. There are discussion boards where girls can talk about everything from fashion or sports to big problems like death or harassment. One of the most popular features is the survey, which polls girls about their opinions on everything from the latest movies to everyday issues they themselves are interested in, such as school, relationships and navigating adolescence. About 100,000 girls visit SmartGirl every month.
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The Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the U-M (http://www.umich.edu/~irwg/) coordinates ongoing disciplinary and interdisciplinary research focusing on women and gender. It also fosters a number of study groups on topics such as Gender and Adolescence, Gender and Organizations, Gender, Infertility and Adoption, and Comparative Women's Movements.

The University of Michigan
News Service
412 Maynard
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1399


November 12, 2001 (22)
Contact: Judy Steeh
Phone: (734) 647-3099
E-mail: jsteeh@umich.edu
Web: http://www.umich.edu/~newsinfo

University of Michigan

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