Only 1 percent of adolescent females are classified as suffering from anorexia nervosa, but one in four young women is so weight-preoccupied that she feels "constant anxiety, guilt, depression and anger."
Lauren Branen, nutrition instructor at the University of Idaho, said 25 percent of UI coeds surveyed this year report constant concern about their weight, shape, calories and exercise."They never are satisfied with how they look. They compare themselves with others all the time. Their weight always is on their minds at some level," she said.
Weight preoccupation produces psychologically crippled women who "hobble around in bodies they detest," she said.
She told home economists with the University of Idaho Cooperative Extension Service at a recent Boise meeting that dieting has become so common that it's considered normal behavior, even though it may not be normal physiologically.
Guilt about eating is a major factor in weight preoccupation.
"Even women who are normal weight are concerned about how they will be viewed if they are seen eating in public - and research shows that they are not being paranoid," she said.
Research subjects shown slides of women eating regular-size meals and women eating salads considered the salad eaters more feminine.
Branen's research included holding focus group interviews with 24 UI coeds, administering written screening tests, compiling three-day dietary analyses and analyzing survey responses from 171 students.
She found that weight-preoccupied students identified through the survey were significantly heavier than those who were not preoccupied, even though both groups were in the low-normal weight range.
"The further they were from the weight they wanted to be, the more preoccupied they were," she said.
"We had expected the low-weight females to be the most weight-preoccupied, but they weren't."
Both groups of students appeared to want weight levels below what is considered healthy.
Branen said many younger teenagers confuse the normal weight gain of maturity with obesity. "They admire the late bloomers with the boyish figures, the ones with no hips and no thighs," she said.
The student population she studied appears to be the first generation of women reared by women who have been dieting all their lives.
"The daughters have gotten the message that they're no good unless they're thin," she said.