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Eating Disorders can affect even very young girls

February 24, 2003

Gwenne Culpepper, Office of Public Relations, (319) 273-2761

(Part of the EducatioNet series from the University of Northern Iowa)

As the current pop princess Britney Spears undulates her way through one video after another, baring her impossibly flat tummy and twisting her narrow thighs, adolescent girls nationwide are trying to emulate that look. And it's not just her clothes or dance style they want to copy, but her body image as well. According to Diane Depken, assistant professor in the School of Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services at the University of Northern Iowa, girls as young as 8 years old are dieting, trying to maintain flat tummies, thin thighs and tiny waists.

Depken says American girls are reminded daily -- via television, magazines, catalogs and mannequins -- that the only way for them to achieve happiness is to achieve thinness. Only the thin women have fun, get boyfriends, get married or obtain good jobs.

'You might see some television commercials out there showing a woman with a larger body, but she's usually cleaning the toilet bowl,' says Depken. 'Girls learn early on that being a woman means worrying about your weight.'

Unfortunately, she continues, just about the same time they become vulnerable to the messages about being thing, young girls' bodies naturally try to put on fat. 'As adolescents, they blossom out before they blossom up.'

To combat that, many girls will resort to dieting, bulimia or anorexia. Bulimia is a pattern of binge eating and vomiting. Anorexic women refuse to eat much of anything, if at all.

'In both cases, the girls become absolutely preoccupied with food, and go through cycles of love and hate with it. It doesn't even correlate with how thin or fat they are. It's a cultural milieu.'

Depken and many professionals in her field suspect eating disorders are increasingly common among young girls.

Signs to watch for include:

'Chipmunk cheeks,' which occur from constant vomiting

Rapid loss of weight

Hoarding of food

Loss of shine in hair

Flushed face after visits to the restroom

Need to visit the restroom soon after eating

Rapid consumption of food (shoveling food into the mouth)

Dental problems (constant vomiting chips away at the protective enamel on teeth)

Parents or educators who suspect an eating disorder should seek professional help. Often girls who are approached view the intervention as hostile and will refuse to cooperate, or find a way to cover up the disorder.

'If you have to approach the girl yourself, do so with a feeling of love,' urges Depken. 'She has to know you care.'