Food For Thought

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Class Reunions, Mean Girl Flashbacks & Body Image

How reunions can turn adults into body conscious adolescents

Summertime is class reunion season with many wanting to drop a few pounds before the big day.  Like weddings, class reunions put a spotlight on body size and image.  To some still haunted by cruel comments hurled by classmates, the mere thought of attending a reunion in less than perfect shape can turn a seemingly confident adult into a fretful adolescent.  So how can anxiety-filled adults silence their inner body bully and attend the reunion with confidence? The key is to create a positive sense of self with some coaching and to confront the negative body image memories once and for all.

"Mean girls" and cruel classmates hissing vile comments about everything from breast size to body shape can wreak havoc on adolescent self-esteem. To the targets of "harmless" childhood ridicule, hurtful memories often remain dormant until aroused by the "reunion threat."  Then the thoughts start, "If I go to the reunion will they still think I'm fat? Ugly? Too tall?" Research has shown that appearance-related childhood teasing can have lasting effects on body image and result in adult body dissatisfaction and self-loathing.  Adult disordered eating patterns are also more common in those who were tormented about body shape or size as children.

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To date, no one has studied the relationship between the taunts of yesteryear and reunion angst, so I decided to give it a try with a confidential survey. *(See below). Having been the target of mean girl barbs myself, this topic is near and dear.  I was the preverbal Ugly Duckling. Picture a gawky adolescent with a severe overbite, reddish hair and freckles who "developed" before her classmates and you've got a snapshot of me in my super dork phase.  Thanks to an orthodontist, a great haircut and supportive friends, I was able to weather the adolescent storm without major consequences...but I never forgot the hurtful remarks.

Many of my clients who faced similar childhood torment arrive for pre-reunion weight management counseling and suffer from body image distress. I often hear, "Can you help me lose 20 pounds before my reunion."  After some careful probing, the client's desire to lose weight is often driven by painful memories of peer bullying or mocking.  Women in particular seem to be particularly haunted by body image taunts they received from "mean girls." Reunion-driven dieters will often try starvation or extreme exercise as a way to lose weight in a hurry, but the real demon here is not the body fat or reflection in the mirror, it's the mean girl memory that ignites a tidal wave of negative emotions.

Chances are you remember a mean girl -she's probably the girl you'd swore you'd never name your doll, dog or daughter after. She's the girl whose memory stimulates thoughts of revenge, anger, anxiety and despair.  These painful recollections and feelings can cause long-lasting body image angst in even the most confident adult.  Establishing body self-esteem and silencing the inner fat-titude critic can be done with some coaching:

  • Recognize that body shape and size change with age.  Genetics, hormones, pregnancy and changes in physical activity impact weight, fat distribution and health.  People age differently. 
  • Dress for your age and body shape.  Where flattering colors and styles to bring out your best attributes.  Trying to dress "young" when you're of a certain age will backfire.
  • Get a flattering new hair do, have your nails done and/or get a professional make up job.
  • If you want to lose weight, do it sensibly and do it for YOU!
  • Put things in perspective.  You are no longer the gawky adolescent and have nothing to prove to former classmates.

Remember that body size does not equal body image.  Talking to a health professional or counselor can help you develop positive self-image and create a weight management plan that's right for you.  If you plan on attending a school reunion anytime soon, plan on enjoying yourself and recall the happier memories!

*I am conducting a research survey to better understand "Reunions, Body Image and Weight Loss."  To participate in this confidential survey, please go to http://www.zoomerang.com/Survey/WEB22CK2R5HMJV

 

 

 

 

 

 

Martina M. Cartwright, Ph.D., R.D., is an adjunct professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Arizona and an independent biomedical consultant.

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