Creative Commons license An Honorable GermanApparently, Prince Charming only marries skinny girls. That’s the apparent takeaway from the recent fairy-tale marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton, at least according to the skewed perspective of the pro-ana (anorexia) and pro-mia (bulimia) websites who’ve been trumpeting the thinspiration offered by the new Duchess of Cambridge and her super-stylish sister, Pippa.

Thinspiration (or “thinspo” in the vernacular of the pro-ana and pro-mia subcultures) are images of ultra-skinny people — usually celebrities or models — used to inspire those suffering from eating disorders to continue losing weight and/or delay treatment that can save their lives. A Today Health article online has observed that images of the Middleton sisters are popping up on these websites:

“Every little girl at one time wants to be a princess, and these images will not only reach teenagers but middle and elementary schoolers,” said Jill M. Pollack, director of the Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia. She has been treating patients suffering from eating disorders for over 20 years. “To have the Middleton sisters [on pro-ana sites] is like, oh my God, a disaster waiting to happen.”

Recent tabloid reports have estimated Kate’s current weight at 95 pounds — and while there’s no evidence to support these claims, Pollack concedes that the Duchess’s visible collar bones alone may be cause for alarm.

“It’s not easy to starve yourself,” Pollack says, “and [people suffering from eating disorders] look for thinspiration to lose weight.”

According to information cited by the National Eating Disorders Information Centre (NEDIC), 1.5% of women between 15 and 24 years of age and 0.5% of males will develop either anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness; 10% of sufferers will die of the condition within 10 years of onset (1). These figures don’t take into account the other unhealthy behaviours associated with poor body self-image, such as exercise obsession, use of anabolic steroids, smoking to curb appetite or fad dieting binges.

Our children are constantly surrounded by images of extreme thinness, and fed media messages which suggest thin people are smarter, more attractive, more capable, more interesting and wealthier. The consequences of this play out in our self-awareness from a very young age. Thirty-seven percent of girls in grade nine and 40% in grade ten perceived themselves as too fat. Even among students of normal-weight (based on BMI), 19% believed that they were too fat, and 12% of students reported attempting to lose weight.

I challenge you to find a single adult woman who hasn’t — at some point in her life — had a messed up relationship with food.

There are at least two things parents can do to lessen their kids’ risks of developing an eating disorder or (more commonly) what the experts call a dysmorphic body image (in which they are unable to see themselves as others see them).

The first is to regularly sit down to meal times with your teenagers. University of Illinois researcher Barbara Fiese reviewed 17 studies of adolescent eating patterns for the June issue of Pediatrics, involving more than 200,000 chidren and teens. She found that teens who eat least five meals a week with their families were 35 percent less likely to be disordered eaters. Even three meals a week eaten together seemed to offer protective benefits as well, with kids in those families 12 percent less likely to be overweight. They were also 24% more likely to have healthy eating habits and eat healthier foods than teens who ate alone.

“For children and adolescents with disordered eating, mealtime provides a setting in which parents can recognise
early signs and take steps to prevent detrimental patterns from turning into full-blowing eating disorders.

Professor Fiese said: ‘Family meals give them a place where they can go regularly to check in with their parents and express
themselves freely. If family meals are not a forced activity, if parents don’t totally control the conversation, and if teens can contribute to family interaction and feel like they’re benefiting from it, older kids are likely to welcome participating.” (Daily Mail)

The global protective effects of family meal times have already been demonstrated when it comes to teens consuming alcohol, drugs and staying in school.

One other thing parents can try and avoid is “fat talk,” which includes constant discussions about weight loss, weight gain, how fat other people are, dieting, exercise, etc. This kind of talk tends to creep into everyday conversation, and we aren’t always aware of the damage it can cause. It can be insulting to others and harmful to our children, who hear one underlying message about how fat is disgusting and to be avoided at all costs. Fat talk can trigger all sorts of unhealthy behaviours, and make both ourselves and others feel bad about their bodies.

For more information on how to stop fat talking, and for an inspiring video on the subject, check out Operation Beautiful.

(1) Sullivan, P. (2002). Course and outcome of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. In Fairburn, C. G. & Brownell, K. D. (Eds.). Eating Disorders and Obesity (pp. 226-232). New York, New York: Guilford.