A friend of mine from my days at Northwestern University (thanks, Mary!) suggested I look into the research of a current psychology professor at our Alma Mater.
Dr. Renee Engeln wrote a book called "Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women."
I cannot recommend it more highly.
However, I am stuck on page three where I read this:
"Thirty-four percent of five-year-old girls engage in deliberate dietary restraint at least 'sometimes.'
Twenty-eight percent of these girls say they want their bodies to look like the women they see in movies and on television ...
These are girls who are just learning how to move their bodies around in the world, yet somehow they're already worried about how their bodies look, already seeking to take up less space.
Between ages five and nine, 40 percent of girls say they wish they were thinner. Almost one-third of third-grade girls report they are 'always afraid of becoming fat.'"
These statistics took my breath away. I had to close the book and just sit with my sadness.
Our little girls, barely in kindergarten, are worried about their weight.
Our grade school girls, not even in fourth grade yet, wish they were thinner.
I am shocked, and not at all shocked.
In her Introduction Engeln writes this:
"We have created a culture that tells women the most important thing they can be is beautiful. Then we pummel them with a standard of beauty they will never meet. After that when they worry about beauty, we call them superficial."
Engeln describes this as "beauty sickness," and its greatest tragedy is that it,
"steals women's time, energy and money, moving us further away from the people we want to be and the lives we want to live. It keeps us facing the mirror instead of facing the world."
This is such a complicated issue. I am both a victim of this and a perpetrator. I finally feel, in my mid-50's, at peace with my body. I mainly want to be healthy and strong. But I grieve over all the hours, days, weeks, months spent "facing the mirror instead of facing the world."
I am confident Engeln is not advocating unhealth.
But I am confident she - through her research - is creating a path forward for girls and women as we stand strong together against the wrongly-held belief that the greatest thing we have to offer the world is our outward beauty and thin bodies.
As I think about the start of Lent and all the girls and women who might use this annual season of religious observance as a chance to "give up chocolate," or "give up pop," or any other kind of dietary restriction disguised as devotion to Jesus, I wonder if a better observance might be - for all the women and girls I know - to give up "beauty sickness" for the next forty days.
Imagine the freedom we might all find in that subversive abstinence.