Child Performers and Eating Disorders: Why It Happens and What You Can Do About It

By Dr. Jenn Berman
Contributing Writer to Pushed to the Edge: How to Stop the Child Competition Race… So Everyone Wins


New Mom's Companion
Anybody who thinks that society pressures women to live up to our image should think of what we have to go though to maintain that image. - Supermodel Carol Alt

With the recent hospitalization of Mary-Kate Olsen for anorexia nervosa, the public is starting to examine this widespread phenomenon. Why would someone who seems to have the world at her fingertips stop eating? Why are eating disorders such a problem? Are young performers at more of a risk for body image issues than adult performers?

The Link Between Performers and Eating Disorders

The world has lost many talented women to eating disorders including Boston Ballet dancer Heidi Guenther, Olympic gymnast Christy Henrich and singer Karen Carpenter. In addition, many high profile performers have spoken publicly about the suffering they endured as a result of these disorders: actress Tracey Gold, singer Paula Abdul, talk show host Oprah Winfrey, actress Ally Sheedy, '60s teen idol Sandra Dee and actress Courtney Thorne-Smith, to name a few.

Psychological experts have found that many of the personality traits which make children great athletes or performers are the very same characteristics which make them more susceptible to eating disorders; the most common being: perfectionism; the desire to please; the ability to ignore pain and exhaustion; obsessiveness and the burning desire to reach their goals. When you add into the mix the difficult physical expectations in television, movies, and professional athletics to be dangerously thin, you have a recipe for disaster. Studies have shown that the rate of anorexia nervosa in this group is ten times that of the general population and due largely to these professions in which thinness is a prerequisite for success.

What’s normal?

According to Eating Disorder Awareness and prevention (EDAP), there are three red flags parents should look out for which can help indicate future eating disordered behavior: body dissatisfaction, dieting behavior, and a drive for thinness.

During the normal adolescent growth spurt, a young woman’s body fat increases by 125%, compared to her lean body mass, which only increases by 42%. This kind of normal change in physiology can panic adolescents as well as their parents, agents, managers, and coaches. Often, it is at this crucial age when girls are likely to try their first diet. Be aware - this is often a precursor to an eating disorder.

The Problems with Diets

Studies have shown that the risk of developing an eating disorder is 8 times higher in dieting than non-dieting 15-year-old girls. Even though diets have been estimated to have a 95% failure rate, it has been estimated that half of all American women are on a diet at any given time. So commonplace are diets in our society that one San Francisco study reported that 50% of 8-year-old girls are on diets. While it was once believed that this was a problem that predominantly affected white, teenage girls, it has been shown that the unhealthy eating attitudes and practices which contribute to this problem affect nearly all ethnicities, genders and classes, irrespective of age or location.

There have been many theories explaining why dieting leads to a loss of control with food and binge eating. Many theorists believe that it is the dieter’s inability to manage powerful surges of hunger which leaves her vulnerable to erratic eating behavior and binges. Researchers have found the greater the degree of dietary restraint, the more severe the eating pathology.

In addition to lowering the dieter’s metabolic level, or in other words - slowing down her ability to burn calories, research has revealed that the metabolic changes have a profound impact on the brain. For the 4% of the population which has the biological pre-disposition to develop an eating disorder, this is the beginning of a serious eating disorder

Media Images

Today's teens are at higher risk than those of previous generations. They are bombarded by images of unrealistic standards of beauty on television, the internet, in magazines, and in movies. The message which teens today are being fed is that beauty and thinness can change your life. Tune into any episode of a show like “The Swan” and you will start to believe it, too.

Studies have shown there is a direct correlation between how much exposure a woman has to contemporary media and the frequency of eating disordered symptoms she experiences. One study in which women viewed slides of overweight, average, and thin models found exposure to thin models resulted in lower self-esteem and decreased weight satisfaction.

In other cultures, the rate of eating disorders has risen in direct correlation with the influx of American exports, such as television programs and feature films, which bring with them new concepts of beauty and femininity as well as Western clothing, which is geared towards the slimmer figures. . For example, in Fiji after being exposed to American television for only three years, Fijian teens who had never before been exposed to Western culture experienced significant changes in their attitudes and behaviors towards food and body image. In this culture where a comment like “you look fat today” was once considered to be a compliment, the standard of attractiveness changed. As a result the teen risk for eating disorders doubled to 29%, 15% of high school girls started vomiting for weight control (a five fold increase), 74% of Fijian teens said they felt ``too big or too fat'' at least some of the time, and 62% said they had dieted in the past month.

What You Can Do

There is a lot you can do as a parent. To begin with, every parent needs to look out for the warning signs: dramatic changes in weight, rituals surrounding eating, food avoidance, frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, wearing baggy clothes, a constant, low body temperature, and dramatic mood shifts. It is important that you encourage body acceptance and discourage dieting behavior. Teaching your child how to listen to her body’s signs like hunger, thirst and satiety are important lessons. It is especially important that you work through your own food and body image issues so that you can be a model of healthy behavior for your children, which is ultimately one of the greatest tools you can give them.



Dr. Jenn Berman is a nationally recognized psychotherapist, sports psychology consultant and co-author of Pushed to the Edge: How to Stop the Child Competition Race… So Everyone Wins. She consults for A Minor Consideration, the Actor’s Fund, and USA Gymnastics. She writes a monthly column called “Dr. Jenn” that is printed in Los Angeles Family Magazine and five other magazines. Dr. Jenn has given advice on over eight different television shows including: 48 Hours, Talk Back Live, Married By America, Inside Edition, Celebrity Justice, and The Other Half. She has served as a sports coach, a gymnastics judge, and grew up as an elite level athlete. She spent five years on the United States Rhythmic Gymnastics National Team, was a Junior National Champion, competed in many international competitions and performed exhibitions at the 1984 Olympic games. Visit Dr. Jenn at www.doctorjenn.com.



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