November 20, 2014

Is it a diet or an eating disorder?

This is my third post about last weekend's Renfrew Conference for eating disorder professionals. If you missed the two-part post "Perfectionism and eating disorders" you can link to them here: Part 1, Part 2.

Every session I attended was both enjoyable and educational, but one of my favorites was "'Non-Diet'itians - Integrating Eating Disorders Wisdom in All That We Do," presented by North Carolina registered dietetian nutritionists Anna Lutz, MPH, RDN, LDN, CEDRD and Katherine Zavodni, MPH, RDN.

The information in this session has spurred some ideas for future blog posts and On Nutrition columns, but I wanted to share some tidbits now, starting with this quote from a 2005 article in International Journal of Epidemiology, "The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic?"

"It is a remarkable fact that the central premise of the current war on fat - that turning obese and overweight people into so-called 'normal weight' individuals will improve their health - remains an untested hypothesis."

Among the recommendations for weight loss "success" from various studies on the subject are:
  • Restrict variety across all food groups.
  • Encourage clients to consume a low-energy, low-fat diet.

Funny...those very things that are recommended to dieters are also common eating disorder behaviors. Why would any scientist or health professional ever encourage someone to adopt disordered eating behaviors, especially when there is no proof that weight loss in and of itself improves health?

I'll let you chew on that nugget for now. Stay tuned for more on this, and related topics.

Disclosure: As a blogger/writer, my registration fee for this conference was waived, but I paid for my own airfare and hotel. What, where or how much I chose to write about the conference was left to my discretion.

November 19, 2014

Perfectionism and eating disorders: Part 2

See yesterday's post for Part 1 of my report on the keynote address that Debora Spar, President of Barnard College, gave at the Renfrew Conference last weekend.

Before 1963, Spar said, women were expected to look pretty, get married, have babies and cook dinner. Spar said this was limiting and confining, but it was achievable. Today, women are expected to do all of those things plus run a Fortune 500 company (OK, usually figuratively, but sometimes literally). 

“As we added expectations to women’s lives, we didn’t take anything away,” she said. “We’ve upped expectations much more in girls than in boys.” 

These expectations involve both appearance and achievement. “We’re expecting three-year-olds to look like porn stars [a reference to shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras”] while they become engineers,” Spar said. “I see these girls when they are 17, and they are exhausted.” 

The beauty myth

Spar said that one of the original ideals of feminism was that we were supposed to stop evaluating women on the basis of their physical appearance. Instead, she said, “We have upped and upped the ante of what an attractive women is supposed to look like. I’m not sure we’ve evolved all that much since the era of the corset. 

“This vision of the ideal body is very difficult for most people to attain," she said. "Even the most beautiful women in the world are being digitally enhanced.” 

Spar said that even when girls “know” that photos of models and celebrities have been Photoshopped, sometimes dramatically, as they are flipping through fashion magazines, they don’t really know it, and they still internalize the many ways that they don’t measure up. 

“We’re selling young women this incredible myth, but collectively we’re all buying into it,” she said. “You have to look like you’re 17 from the time you are three until the time you are 87. There are no wrinkles allowed in New York City. Seriously…they stop you in New Jersey.” 

Domestic goddesses?

The pressure to be perfect doesn’t stop with appearance or career performance…it extends into the home as well. “We are doing housework at a higher level and a more intense level than our grandmothers.” 

Spar gave the example of school bake sales that push already harried working moms to make elaborately decorated cupcakes that take four hours to make but still look nothing like the photograph in Real Simple magazine (“Nothing in Real Simple is simple.”). 

“Women are being evaluated all the time on things that have nothing to do with professional characteristics, “ she said. (Primarily, their appearance and their abilities as a mother.) Spar pointed out that almost any article about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg or Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer will mention their clothes or their daycare arrangements. The same cannot be said about interviews with male CEOs. “No one expects the superstar CEO to be a superstar dad.” 

So, why is this a problem? Why is this topic relevant to a keynote talk at a conference for eating disorder professionals? “Eating disorders are the disease of the perfect girls,” said Spar, who herself struggled with anorexia in the past, although this was not a focus of her talk. 

Changing the channel

So, what’s the answer? 
  • “We have to give up on the notion of perfection. We need to trumpet real people instead of perfect people, tell the bad stories, the messy stories,” Spar said. “We don’t need to show all of our dirty laundry, but we need to show some of it.” 
  • “Women need to be taught that life has trade-offs. In the end, it’s about the math. Something has got to give. It’s doable, but it may mean not having kids," she said. "It may mean having a spouse who doesn’t have as stellar a career.” 
“If all we’ve done is make women miserable and exhausted all the time," Spar said, "then we’ve lost the plot [of feminism].”

Further reading

Here are links to a few interesting interviews with/articles about Spar that follow the same lines as her Renfrew talk:

Disclosure: As a blogger/writer, my registration fee for this conference was waived, but I paid for my own airfare and hotel. What, where or how much I chose to write about the conference was left to my discretion.

November 18, 2014

Perfectionism and eating disorders: Part 1

As I teased to yesterday, today’s blog post is about perfectionism, which relates to eating disorders in that the drive to be (or appear) perfect can trigger disordered eating patterns at various points along the spectrum, from occasional emotional/stress/comfort eating on one end to full-fledged eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder on the other.

One of the keynote speakers at last weekend’s Renfrew Conference was Deborah Spar, president of Barnard College and author of several books, most recently Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.

In her talk, Spar called herself a reluctant feminist, “not because I thought feminism was bad, but because I thought it was over. I didn’t think we needed it anymore.”

Spar was a professor and assistant dean at Harvard Business School before being named president of Barnard College. As one of the only women faculty members at HBS, she was asked to fix the “women’s problem” the school was having (another good article on the issue here). She says this forced her to look at the “women’s problem” and the role of feminism in her own life and in the larger world.

"Why have we gotten stuck?"

Spar found that despite the fact that her students at Harvard Business School were extremely intelligent, extremely ambitious and quite capable of putting in long hours at future jobs, professional success was the norm for male graduates, while being the anomaly for female graduates. In fact, in almost every field, the number of women in leadership positions hovers around 16 percent (lower in the tech sector).

“Why have we gotten stuck?” she asked. She said it’s not a pipeline issue, as was once argued. “We’ve been filling the pipeline since the 1980s.”

“Girls are outperforming boys in almost every metric,” she said. In high school, girls are far more likely to be valedictorian, student body president and editor of the newspaper. More women go to college than men. More women apply to Ivy League schools. Women make up 50 percent of medical students and 44 percent of law students. Women earn 50 percent of the PhDs in the natural sciences. 

“It’s not a pipeline problem,” Spar reiterated. “What’s happening is that women are falling out of the pipeline before they reach leadership positions.”

Co-opting feminism

Born in 1963, Spar said that women of her generation were still children during the dramatic societal changes that happened between 1963, when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and 1978. These include the passage of Roe vs. Wade and Title IX, as well as increased access to birth control.

Her generation took for granted that they could be whatever they wanted to be, because they were the first generation of women to be told that. They were also influenced by advertising and media images that depicted career women as having it all. Of special note are the two Charlies: Charlie perfume (see video below if you need a refresher) and "Charlie's Angels."

Spar said her generation made two crucial mistakes about feminism.
  1. “We privatized feminism…we made it about our personal pursuit of perfection…that’s never what feminism was about.” 
  2. “We actually ratcheted up the kinds and level of expectations that we placed on women and young girls.” 


Disclosures: I participate in the Amazon Affiliate program, which means that if you buy one of the items mentioned in this post after clicking on an embedded link, I may earn a commission. This fact does not influence what books or products I mention on my blog. My opinions and recommendations are always 100 percent my own.

As a blogger/writer, my registration fee for this conference was waived, but I paid for my own airfare and hotel. What, where or how much I chose to write about the conference was left to my discretion.