It is not unusual, when talking about the warning signs of teenage eating disorders, for someone to pipe up and say “that’s normal teenage behavior.”
This comment makes me want to cry. Sure, they may be “normal” if we define normal as common, but when we’re talking about body behavior, we must define “normal” as healthy functioning. Body hatred and an obsession with appearance are not healthy functioning.
Normal hearts beat 60 to 100 times per minute.
Normal lungs take 12 to 20 breaths per minute.
Normal teens should not be crippled by body hatred and an obsession with appearance.
We have normalized body hatred and an obsession with appearance in teens, but we must never mistake them for normal, because such normalization is how eating disorders hide in plain sight.
Normalization refers to a process that makes something more normal or regular. Social normalization is the process through which ideas and actions are made to appear culturally “normal.” The fact that something has been normalized is an entirely different thing than being normal.
We live in a culture that has normalized body hatred, which includes feelings of despair and anguish over the appearance of one’s body. When we hate our bodies, we believe they are flawed. Believing that the body is flawed, especially when one is physically healthy and able-bodied, serves to keep us under the influence of marketers who want to sell us products to “improve” our natural bodies.
Normalization in our culture is driven and controlled by marketers who are trying to sell products. Rule No. 1 when marketing a product is that we must first create a market. The way we create a market is to create a problem that must be solved.
Marketers know that selling a diet that will cause extreme hunger and discomfort is not effective, but selling a diet that says it will make you more attractive, and then saying that being more attractive is the key to happiness and success, is very effective.
Selling a skin cream that looks and feels like every other cream on the market is not effective, but selling a skin cream that says it will make you more attractive, and then saying that being more attractive is the key to happiness and success, is very effective.
This is the formula for all beauty and weight-loss advertisements.
Our children are exposed to powerful marketing messages from childhood. These messages serve to build the market for beauty and weight loss products. More importantly, these messages serve to convince our children that their beautiful, perfect bodies are flawed, and that a person cannot be happy and successful unless they use products and pursue the bodily perfection promoted by the industry.
It has been well documented that the human brain rejects the idea that it can be influenced. We all believe that we are in control of our thoughts. This incorrect assertion works in the favor of marketers, because even though we are exposed to these messages and they most definitely influence us, we assertively deny that they have any influence over our behavior.
When we say that it is “normal” for teenage girls to be obsessed with their appearance, and to hate their bodies, we are failing to recognize the ways in which the beauty and weight-loss industries have shaped their belief about what is beautiful and what being beautiful means.
Body hatred and an obsession with appearance are both part of the eating disorder behavior spectrum. Those of us who have eating disorders believe that we are flawed and must correct our flaws by restricting food. Once we start restricting food and send our body into starvation mode, we may develop symptoms of restriction including binge eating and purging.
As long as we believe that it is “normal” for our teenagers to hate their bodies, we fail to prevent the eating disorders that thrive in plain sight in our body-obsessed culture.
Parents alone cannot counteract the power of marketers, but we can work steadily to identify our own subconscious biases about body weight and appearance. Once we open our own eyes to the danger of believing that any woman is flawed in her natural state, we can help our children open their eyes to the idea that their bodies are perfectly fine as-is. We can help them understand that they do not need to shrink, control, alter, or otherwise mess with a body that is already perfect.