Mass media are shaping how an entire generation of children see themselves, one skinny model or candy-coated cereal at a time. And the results likely will carry into adulthood and shape not only quality of life but quantity.
Think Barbie doll, fast-food cheeseburger, candy masquerading as breakfast cereal. Then follow the thoughts to their possible consequences, including osteoporosis, diabetes, heart disease, steroid use, even premature death. Not to mention an unhealthy self-image along the way.
"I'm not talking about isolated eating disorders. We have disordered eating across the board," said Barbara Storper, a nutritionist who wrote and directs "This is Your Life," a presentation on nutrition and health that's currently making the rounds to about 30 Utah junior highs and middle schools, sponsored by Intermountain Health Care.
During the 45-minute, two-actor show, which played twice at Bountiful Junior High on Tuesday, students are challenged to think about the messages they get from mass media. In one segment, Barbie goes on trial. Girls are "killing themselves to look like that and it's impossible," notes the fake prosecutor, Mike, who points out that fewer than 2 percent of females have a body that would even slightly conform to the Barbie mold. Smoking, skipping meals and over-exercising to try to achieve that "look" won't work and is harmful, he said.
In another segment, the two compared lunches. Mike had brought a QuarterPounder — 12 teaspoons of fat, actress Julie told him. "It's like eating a half stick of butter."
Her lunch came from McDonald's, too. But it was healthy, including a salad and a chicken sandwich without any fat-filled sauces. The bottled drink she'd been sipping, though, billed as a juice, contained way too much sugar.
Storper tries to use humor and interaction to get her message across, because Americans of all ages have embraced harmful eating trends. A survey, she said, shows that two-thirds of girls in fourth grade have dieted. Not only do some develop eating disorders, but "the more you diet as a child or adolescent, the harder it is to lose weight when you're older."
Unhealthy eating habits — whether overeating or starving yourself — combined with a sedentary lifestyle are a recipe for disaster, she said, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projections that of children born in the year 2000, half of African-American or Hispanic children will develop diabetes over their lifetime. For Caucasians, it's a smaller, but still dismal one-third.
Her goal, she said, is to "get kids to make good choices for health. The majority of TV commercials are promoting junk foods. We are trying to get kids to be media savvy and know that the ads they see aren't all in their best interests."
She said parents and children should see that nutritious lunches are a priority at school. They need to be aware of vending machines and what's being sold in them.
Parents also need to "make sure there are gym classes and recess at school."
Other steps that help, she said, include limiting TV commercials for kids (she'd like to see rules tackle that one), helping kids learn to make healthy choices — the average teen consumes 750 cans of soda pop a year — and more family physical activities like taking walks and eating meals together.
Healthy food can be less expensive, she said. The more you process a potato to turn it into something else, for instance, the more expensive and less healthful it becomes.
The actors also pointed out the importance of building strong bones now. About half of the human skeleton is built between age 11 and 18. Excessive dieting or inadequate exercise can both impact bone density.
Eating enough fruits and vegetables, they said, builds the immune system and improves brain activity. It's a great hedge against being sleepy in school. So is eating breakfast, the most important meal of the day.
The show is presented by Emmy award-winning FoodPlay Productions.