The skinny on too-thin teens |

The skinny on too-thin teens

Summit Daily/Reid Williams

SUMMIT COUNTY – Chelsea Seeger, a model and a sophomore at Summit High School, has seen the devastating effects of an obsession to be thin. Her friend, who has since moved from Summit County to the East Coast, battled athletic bulimia. In junior high, the girl ran 20 to 30 miles every day and was embarrassed to eat even though she weighed only 90 pounds. After one to two years of avoiding food and over-exercising, her parents sent her to treatment, and she eventually learned to maintain a healthy weight, Seeger said.Watching her friend’s struggle helps Seeger deal with pressure to lose weight as a model. Denver agencies routinely tell her and other models who have a normal body weight to lose 2 to 3 inches from their waists. At 5’9″ and 120 pounds, Seeger feels good about her body and refuses to follow the unhealthy request.Megan Barrett, another sophomore, feels similar pressure when she goes to dance conventions in Denver. Although Barrett stays fit through sports, she looks at other dancers who are extremely skinny and wear tiny shorts. She too has been able to resist falling into an unhealthy obsession with her weight, preferring instead to focus on strength and muscle tone.But some people don’t escape societal pressure.Local students weigh inSeven out of 222 local seventh-graders were underweight, said nurse Bobbi Gillis after a Sept. 29 screening at Summit Middle School. Although not state mandated, the school district hopes to start a pilot program to assess body mass indexes and follow students throughout their education to see if health education helps reduce weight problems.”Not all students that are underweight are at risk for health problems,” Gillis said. “Some kids just have a very low lean body mass and are just slim genetically.”

Other students are at risk, though, and the school district would offer psychological and nutritional counseling to them.In fact, students who are not underweight may still be at risk for developing body image problems.Underweight or otherwise, the main problem Summit High School mental health counselor Kate Glerup sees is girls with distorted body images.”I’ve seldom met a teenage girl who has an accurate body image,” Glerup said.Many students say they definitely feel pressure to be thin. Kay Gordon, a freshman, often hears girls say they’re fat. They’re usually joking, she says, but it’s because they want friends to deny they need to lose weight.Others, such as sophomore Rochelle Wilson, admit that high school students don’t often say they want to lose weight, because that may be seen as a sign of having a body image problem, but instead say they want to firm up or gain more muscle, which sounds healthier in this age of awareness about anorexia and psychological disorders. Although the semantics have changed, the intent remains the same: to stay thin.Sources of pressurePeers, television, magazines, parents – the sources of pressure seem to be everywhere.Many of Hollywood’s leading actresses are “drastically underweight,” according to Calista Flockhart, Mary-Kate Olsen and Lara Flynn Boyle made headlines with their skeletal shape, which set a standard for other celebrities to attain. Now top actresses from Kate Bosworth to Reneé Zellweger strive to be thinner, and they’ve become too thin.”Although the media may not be the cause, it certainly is an important contributing factor,” said Dr. Carolyn Sloan Burton, a Frisco psychiatrist.

For example, before 1995, Fiji residents didn’t experience eating disorders, preferring plump bodies. After 1995, when television flooded households, the rate of eating disorders skyrocketed. The statistics indicate media push cultural images, and people accept them, hoping if they attain ideals such as thinness, they’ll be happy, Burton said.Once people integrate media messages, peer pressure fuels them.”The pressure comes from wanting to impress guys,” sophomore Annalise Hafliger said. “It’s probably the strongest reason to lose weight. If one makes a comment about fat girls, I think, ‘Great. I have to become anorexic.’ It creates self-pressure.”And some guys do make fun of being overweight, according to high school boys interviewed.Even clothing companies push the need to be thin. Manufacturers make clothes smaller, so a consumer who used to fit into a small now requires a medium. Plus, fashions tend to be tight and revealing these days.”When I don’t fit into a medium, I think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to lose weight,'” sophomore Nikki Kubat said.The role of sportsSports play a predominant role in Summit County, which often helps kids remain fit. But research shows athletes who require leanness to remain competitive increase their risk of developing an eating disorder, said Burton, who worked at a children’s hospital eating disorder unit during her psychiatric fellowship training after watching her college roommate and other teammates in track and field develop eating disorders.Nationwide, one in 10 women suffers from eating disorders at some point in life, one in five teenage girls experiences eating disorders and 10 percent of men experience eating disorders, Burton said.

“It is unclear what the incidence is of eating disorders in Summit County,” she said. “Most likely it reflects the national statistics, but the numbers may be even higher … But again other factors are also important in deterring when dieting goes awry and leads to an eating disorder. These factors are biological, social and psychological in origin.”According to most students interviewed, staying competitive – which means staying strong and healthy – overrides any obsession with becoming dangerously thin.”We try to be strong and stay fit, not get sick,” said sophomore Hannah Rea. “If you’re too thin, it destroys your lifestyle.”When it becomes a problemUnderweight kids function on very few calories and sometimes rely on caffeine, sugar or both for quick energy. Caffeine raises the metabolic rate, and sugar contributes calories without any nutritional value, such as vitamins and minerals. Both are very addictive and create cravings, said Justin Pollack, a natropath who teaches nutrition at Colorado Mountain College.When an Eastern Pennsylvania school district removed soda and added healthier vending machine options in the schools as well as sent educational letters to parents, the number of underweight students dropped by 50 percent, according to an Associated Press report. Pollack said consuming too much phosphorous, an additive in sodas, can cause weight loss. Dangers of caloric underconsumption include malnutrition, mood swings, a weakened immune system, digestive and absorption problems, osteoporosis and difficulties with premenstrual syndrome and menopause.”It’s just a whole downward spiral that people have to start new habits to get out of,” Pollack said.Parents play a crucial role in preventing and treating poor body image and eating disorders. Encouraging healthy eating, understanding how media shapes perceptions and learning the warning signs decrease children’s risk in falling into the fad of becoming too thin.

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