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Rich Don't Feel Thin Enough

Women in affluent areas are more unhappy with their bodies

MONDAY, Feb. 11, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Is it true that you can never be too rich or too thin?

If you're a woman living in a wealthy neighborhood, you're more likely to believe the weight part, new research reveals.

The study, published in the February issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found that women from wealthier neighborhoods were more unhappy with their bodies than women from less affluent areas.

"A woman of average weight who lived in an area of above average affluence had a 71 percent likelihood of being dissatisfied with her body, versus a 58 percent likelihood of being dissatisfied if she lived in a neighborhood of average affluence," says the study's author, Lindsay McLaren, who was at the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada, at the time of the study.

Being unhappy with your body may not seem like a big deal, but body dissatisfaction can have far-reaching health consequences, experts point out.

"It's a real public health problem," says Dr. Shari Lusskin, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. "Women who become obsessively preoccupied with their body image can resort to self-destructive means to maintain their body weight at or below their ideal weight."

Women with body dissatisfaction are more likely to have eating disorders, be depressed, have a lower quality of life, exercise less and may be less likely to quit smoking, the research found.

For the study, the researchers did phone interview with almost 900 women from 52 Canadian communities. They used census data to choose neighborhoods that had varying socioeconomic status. They determined affluent areas to be those in which families averaged more than $90,000 in income, and average communities as those with a typical family income of just over $60,000.

The average age of the women was 40 years old, and 53 percent of them reported being unhappy with their bodies. The more a woman weighed, the more dissatisfied she was with her body, the researchers found.

Of the women considered underweight, only 31 percent were dissatisfied with their physiques. Forty-three percent of women at a healthy weight reported being unhappy with their looks. That number jumped to 74 percent for women who were somewhat overweight and was 86 percent for women who were considered overweight.

Surprisingly, McLaren and her colleagues didn't find that an individual's personal income mattered in predicting body image. "Our finding was entirely an affect of neighborhood affluence," says McLaren.

McLaren believes that in wealthier neighborhoods, the culture probably magnifies the importance of thinness. Fashion magazines with waif-thin models, gyms, weight-loss centers and trendy clothing stores are more prevalent in affluent areas, creating more of a focus on being thin in these areas, McLaren says.

"There is a cult of thinness," agrees Boston College sociology professor Sharlene Hesse-Biber. "Women in affluent neighborhoods constantly bump up against messages to be thin, like seeing a gym on every corner."

"We have the ability in North America to focus on our weight because our basic needs for food and shelter have already been met," explains Lusskin.

Hesse-Biber suggest, however, that the results of the study should be interpreted with some caution.

This study only looked at how people were feeling at one moment in time, she point out, adding that it would be interesting to know whether the women were unhappy with their bodies before they moved to the affluent neighborhoods.

Without knowing that, she adds, you can't definitively say the neighborhood is the cause.

What To Do

"Women need to stop measuring their self-worth in pounds," says Hesse-Biber. She says women need to ignore the Madison Avenue message that they are just bodies and stop focusing so much on outer beauty.

Lusskin says that role models need to change. "If we promote models and actresses who are grossly underweight, that's what women will want to be, and the problem will continue to grow."

To learn more about improving your body image, read this article from the Denver Family Resource Center.

This article from the National Women's Health Information Center looks at how your health can affect your body image.

SOURCES: Interviews with Lindsay McLaren, M.S., doctoral candidate, department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University of London, U.K.; Shari Lusskin, M.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry, New York University School of Medicine and Medical Center, New York; Sharlene Hesse-Biber, Ph.D., professor of Sociology, Boston College, Massachusetts, and author, "Am I Thin Enough Yet?"; February 2002 Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health
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