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Psychologist Warns of Hazards : Slender Women's Poor Body Image Linked to Dieting

September 01, 1985|LEE SIEGEL | Associated Press

Slender women trying to lose a few pounds could end up hating their bodies in a complex mental process that can lead to self-induced vomiting and other "violent dieting" methods, a study suggests.

If further study establishes that casual dieting can trigger severe eating disorders, "it may be appropriate to give (slim women) the warning: Caution, dieting may be hazardous to your health," psychologist Susan Wooley said Tuesday at the American Psychological Assn.'s annual meeting.

Wooley's study sought to "deal with the mystery of why some women who have the most socially acceptable bodies end up with a negative body image."

Effect on Obese Women

Researchers previously found that hatred of one's own body, known as poor body image, can prompt obese women to engage in self-induced vomiting, starvation or other crash diets and abuse of diet pills and laxatives.

In its most extreme form, food binging followed by self-induced vomiting is called bulimia. Extreme self-starvation is known as anorexia. Experts say up to 5% of Americans, mainly young women, suffer bulimia or anorexia, both of which can be fatal.

Wooley and her husband, Orland, co-directors of the Eating Disorders Clinic at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, based their findings on an analysis of the responses from 5,000 of the 33,000 women who answered a survey conducted by Glamour magazine in 1983.

They measured a number of psychological factors, including how much the women's concern about weight intruded on daily life, the extent to which moods triggered overeating or dieting, and the degree to which women's feelings about their bodies were affected by people's remarks or other events.

Dislike, Diet Linked

The analysis revealed that, unlike obese women, slender women tend to start hating their bodies only after they begin to diet, casually at first and then violently.

"They end up with more dissatisfaction with their bodies than when they started," said Wooley, adding that the slender women develop a poor body image because the repeated loss and gain of weight is itself disturbing.

"Feelings of being fat change too often and too rapidly so the body does not feel familiar or comfortable," she said.

Their dissatisfaction then may progress to anorexia or bulimia, she said.

The Wooleys' initial findings, published by Glamour last year, were that 75% of the women felt they were too fat although only 25% actually exceeded their desirable weights in standard height-weight tables.

Nutritionist Disagrees

Joanne Ikeda, a nutritionist at UC Berkeley, disagreed with the Wooleys' conclusions, saying slender women who develop eating disorders start out with hatred of their own bodies.

"Otherwise, why would they bother to try to lose weight?" Ikeda asked.

Wooley insisted that slender women do not start out unhappy with their bodies but "often talked about dieting in a casual way: 'I think I'll lose 3 or 4 pounds to get down one jean size.' "

Ikeda said she would not go as far as Wooley in warning against casual dieting to lose a few pounds, but instead would caution slim women to be careful "about becoming obsessed about your weight."

Wooley's warning did not differ very much. She said that if slender women find their casual dieting "is rapidly becoming a preoccupation--that a low reading on the scale makes their day and eating a piece of cherry pie ruins it--it's time to back off."

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