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Sue Bush
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Commentary: I Have Seen the Enemy

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Thursday, August 18, 2005

Susan Bush admits to chasing the fountain of youth but has yet to catch it.
The following is an actual, recent post on a chat board hosted by a magazine popular with teen-aged girls: “Ok, well, I got up around twelve and ate a fruit cup. [80 calories] then around three I was starvinggg so I ate a [nutrition] bar [165 calories] even though I was trying not to eat anything until dinner. For dinner, I will have peanut butter crackers with a glass of skim milk and then I drink a lot of water. How does this sound?”

If “this” sounds frightening, read on: “if I stick to it, do you think I can lose a lot of weight in 1 and a half weeks? I want to be able to get into a size 4 jeans by the time school starts, which is why I am putting off shopping till the last second. Im 5’4’’ and I weigh 129 and im trying to get down to 110, which I read in a magazine is the “perfect weight” for someone 5’3’’-5’4’’. Any other tips or anything?”

Or how about this post from the same chat board: “I want to lose ten pounds in three weeks. That isn’t a very big deal, it’s not a lot of weight. I’m sort of slim [97lbs] and want to be slimmer for school. Any tips?”

Or: “ok, I haven’t been eating at all lately becuz I wanna loose weight well newayz me and my mom always have dinner together and she makes me eat it, whenever I eat sumthin I always feel like im gonna thro up, y is that?”

And during recent days, while interviewing local folks for a back-to-school fashion story, I overheard the following conversation between two teen-aged girls who were inside a local store: Girl #1: “I hope these [jeans] are still here when I come back. I cannot wear a size seven. I gotta get into the threes. I gotta get rid of my fat a**.”
Girl # 2: “Your a** is not fat. What are you, anorexic or something?”
Girl 1: “Oh, yeah, right, my a** is not fat. That’s why I can’t get into threes, because I’m so skinny. I am not buying sevens.”

Today's Beauty: Assembly Required

Make no mistake about it; despite recent hoo-ha surrounding hair and body product advertisements featuring “real women” [as opposed to what, robots?] and a spate of television appearances by actress Aisha Tyler –who takes the “cover girl” photo editing process to task in a September Glamour magazine article- the quest for physical “perfection” among women [and an increasing number of men] of all ages seems stronger than ever. And the road to what is deemed “beautiful,” “sexy,” “hot,” and “desirable” is a maze of confusing “signs” that provide conflicting information about everything from a healthy diet to “ideal weights,” and the “right” amount of exercise to “acceptable” body proportions.

According to an web site, an estimated 7 million girls and women struggle with eating disorders. Also according to the site, about 1 million boys and men battle eating disorders. And of reported cases of the disorders, which include anorexia and bulimia, 10 percent of cases occurred at age 10 or younger, 33 percent occurred between age 11 and 15, and 43 percent of reported cases occurred between ages 16 and 20. Plastic surgery practices are thriving; apparently, even when a desired weight is achieved, additional “work” is required to meet the beauty standard.

Promises, Promises

Few people know better than I how well the cosmetic industry is doing. On my bathroom counter sits over $1,000 [that’s right, over $1,000] in products that promise to banish lines, wrinkles, and cellulite and enhance skin tone, radiate “glow,” produce “silky, frizz-free hair” that I can style ‘how you want to, not like you have to,’ and otherwise permit me to edge a little closer to popular beauty ideals.

Nowhere on the countertop is a single product that pledges to make me smarter.

So what gives? Is it really the media that pushes human beings to a point of illness or even death simply to be perceived as attractive? Or are we creating the madness ourselves?

Consider this true-to-life example: in one conversation with his wife, a man states “So what if you gain a little weight? I wouldn’t even notice. I love you for you, honey.”

But the same man, several weeks later, reports to the same woman that “some women just should not wear spandex. You should have seen this one, honey, was she fat! I’d hate to be married to her.”

What he thinks he said: “I saw a woman today that I found unattractive. I would not be interested in this woman, and for some reason, I felt compelled to share this with you.”

What she heard him say: “Yes, a few weeks ago I told you that your weight doesn’t matter. But clearly I was lying, because just listen to my reaction over the large woman I saw today. So please don’t take me seriously when I tell you that weight doesn’t matter. Because it does. “

And off to the low-fat frozen dinner aisle we go.

The Great Hair Debate

How about this male-initiated conversation [which I swear occurred]: “I went to the Hooters in [a town in New England] and all I have to say is that the waitresses needed a dye job.”

Wife’s response: “You went to a Hooters and you are actually critiquing the hair color? That is what you noticed in a Hooters?”

Husband: “Yeah, a couple of them had gray hair. So see, I didn’t just focus on one thing. And a Hooters waitress shouldn’t have gray hair.”

Wife: “Then don’t go to Hooters. Are you trying to tell me that’s the only place to have lunch over there?”

Husband: “I like the wings.”

Wife [whispered so ‘husband’ cannot hear] : “Good. I hope hot sauce is covering gray hair.”

Have I mentioned that under my bathroom sink, in the cupboard, are six boxes of hair dye?

What We Say, What We Do

While as a society we loudly chastise publication after publication for the “unrealistic” appearance of cover models, as we repeatedly denounce the phony looks created by air-brushing and other editing steps, we buy those very same magazines. We pore over the “how to look like our cover model” guides and the articles that deliver instructions for “slender thighs in 30 days –Yes, It's Possible!”

And that would be me you hear ridiculing such headlines as “misleading” and “a bunch of bull,” as I plunk the magazine onto the counter and pay for it. That would be me contorting myself into some ungodly position so that I can trim my waist and “Have A Fit Physique At 50!” [OK, I have 11 more months before I’m 50, but something tells me I need all the time I can get.]

When the issue involves unrealistic appearance goals, one of the perpetrators My actions must be screaming louder than any words: as I preach to friends and family members that accomplishment, honesty, kindness, and a host of other adjectives are preferable to simply looking good, I spend over an hour a day with hair, make-up and clothes. No laundry soap in the house? No big deal, just use a little dishwashing soap in the washer. But no blush? That is a lose-lose situation; to get the blush, I must leave the house and be seen without blush!

The saner side of me knows perfectly well that the absence of blush is not going to launch panic in the streets. Indeed, no one has ever approached me and said “What, no blush? Well, that’s it, you have ruined my day.” And no one has ever said “Wow, great blush! With blush like that, world peace must be on the way.”

But there’s that other side, the vain side, that whispers relentlessly “you look awful without blush. You look old and tired and people will notice.”

Many women are plagued by vanity’s whisper, and although scores of women deny being overly concerned with their appearance, beauty industry profits prove otherwise. Think about it, when is the last time a newspaper headline announced the demise of a big-name cosmetics company?

This is not to suggest that attention to personal appearance is “bad” or that women are in some way degrading or objectifying themselves by applying lipstick and mascara. I would say that it is probably healthy to care about one’s appearance, and I freely admit that a day without eyeliner is a day that I don’t venture from the house.

Who Sets the Standard?

But I will also admit that I am concerned, very, very, concerned, when I discover teen-aged girls who think that at 97 pounds, they need to lose weight, or wonder whether peanut butter crackers are “ok” for dinner, or believe that wearing size seven jeans is cause for alarm. And I wonder if it is women, more so than men or the media, that have set the “unattainable” beauty standard that as a group we protest.

By and large, the top women’s fashion magazines boast female editors who decide the content. It wasn’t the male population who rushed out during the ‘70s for a Farrah haircut or demanded a Jennifer Aniston look during the 1990s. We instruct our daughters to eat decent, balanced meals while we nibble on a rice cake, and then wonder why we hear retching sounds coming from the bathroom. We talk about aging with grace while we toss every age-defying product we can find into our shopping bags and attempt to scrub, rub, and peel every trace of character from our faces and bodies. We preach to our 16-year-old offspring that “those jeans are too tight, get the next size up” while at the same moment, we are packing our behinds into their clothing, laying flat on the bed to get them zipped, and nonchalantly telling our friends “oh, yes, Katie and I are the same size. Isn’t that fun?”

We lie to ourselves about our own appearance anxiety and our daughters catch us every time.

Yes, the media contributes to the situation-is there no end to the Jessica Simpson photo-illustrated interviews about how hard she worked for her “Dukes of Hazzard” body?- and men may be unintentionally thoughtless, and in some cases, deliberately very cruel, when they speak about or interact with women. But women hurt other women with catty, appearance-driven comments every day, and often, the hurt is deliberate.

There is nothing troubling about wanting to look your best. Like it or not, we are all judged to some degree on our outward appearance.

But there is something very wrong when a 10-year-old girl of normal weight looks at the cake at a birthday party and says “I wish I could eat that. But I’m on a diet.”

True story: just about one year ago, I was engaged in conversation with a woman about her very attractive, very intelligent daughter. The woman agreed that the teen was a very pretty, very bright girl.

There was just one thing....

“I’m on her a lot about what she eats,” the woman confided. “I know she’s pretty. But if she could lose 10 pounds, she’d be perfect.”

I have seen the enemy, and she is us.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at or at 802-823-9367.
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