Food, Culture, and Body Image – Part 1

Columbus Park founder and director Melissa Gerson recently presented a series on food, culture, and body image at an independent girls’ school in New York City. In a research-informed, interactive workshop, Gerson encouraged girls to think critically about our culture’s thin ideal and consider an expanded definition of “healthy” eating, with the goal of promoting girls’ body acceptance and self-esteem.


Though the series is designed to inspire and empower girls and young women, it has a number of valuable takeaways for anyone who’s ever struggled with disordered eating or body image issues. This two-part blog series looks at some of the key points from Gerson’s series and considers how our cultural context shapes beauty ideals.


The Thin Ideal

The ideal of thinness permeates nearly every aspect of our culture’s beauty standards, from magazine articles on celebrities’ workout regimens to diets promising perfect bikini bodies. The idea that being thin is normal and desirable ignores the reality of average people’s bodies, which vary widely. Particularly extreme examples of the thin ideal—such as Mattel’s original Barbie dolls—have even been found to be nearly impossible from a physiological perspective.


Despite how unrealistic the thin ideal is, it’s been shown to have profound impacts on people’s—especially women and girls—self-esteem and body image. A number of studies indicate that internalizing the thin ideal is correlated to increased risks of disordered eating and negative body image. It’s also clear that body image issues are prevalent more broadly, with roughly three out of four American women reporting at least some unhealthy thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors in relation to their bodies and eating habits.


Beyond the possible health consequences like eating disorders, the thin ideal comes with other costs as well. Fixating on being thin can sap a person’s emotional energy and time, leaving fewer resources left for valuable pursuits like school, work, hobbies, and relationships. Even for people who don’t develop disordered eating habits, the thin ideal can still have significant negative impacts on day-to-day life.


The Fat Myth

The flip side of the thin ideal is the idea that being overweight* or obese is inherently bad or unhealthy. Many believe that people who are overweight are lazy or lack self-control, and fatness is often seen as a personal failure. What’s more, there’s a common misperception that being overweight is always less healthy than being thin, with anti-fat discrimination often couched in terms of concern for overweight people’s health.


The belief that being overweight is unhealthy is based in large part on a widely publicized 2004 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that stated that being overweight or obese would soon be as prevalent a cause of death as smoking. However, the CDC later revealed that the calculations in that report were inaccurate, and that far fewer Americans than originally estimated die of causes related to being overweight or obese.


In reality, there’s little scientific evidence that being overweight actually causes the health conditions that are often associated with it. In some cases, being overweight even seems to be correlated with living longer and being less likely to succumb to certain diseases. What’s more, current research indicates that being overweight often has little to do with personal laziness or lack of self-control; weight and body shape are now understood to be largely predetermined by genetics, rather than food intake or eating habits. While being overweight is sometimes correlated with increased risk of death, this increased risk may be due to other related factors rather than weight itself, such as exercise habits, use of dangerous weight loss measures like diet drugs, or discrimination against overweight people within healthcare settings.


Where Do We Go From Here?

Despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting the thin ideal and the fat myth, the two still work together to exert immense pressure on people to try and control their weight. This pressure often leads to perpetual dieting and/or disordered eating.


In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at the pervasive misperceptions around dieting, and consider how to build a more realistic, holistic definition of “healthy eating.”