In the name of losing weight, about one-fifth of high-school girls have used diet pills, more than one in six have forced themselves to vomit, and half have skipped a meal, the results of new federal survey indicate.
The study, which marks the first federal effort to examine students’ perceptions of their weight, found that more than twice as many girls as boys, or 34 percent compared with 15 percent, felt they were overweight. Nearly 6 out of 10 girls and about 7 out of 10 boys felt they were just about the right size, the study found.
“The high prevalence of bodyweight dissatisfaction and the potentially harmful weight-loss practices among female students described in this report underscore the potential influences of social norms that equate thinness with attractiveness and social approval,” said the study, which was conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The study was part of the C.D.C.'s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which questioned a nationally representative sample of 11,631 students in grades 9 through 12 about a range of health issues.
According to this latest part of the survey to be released, even girls who thought they were the right size were not immune from pressures to maintain or reduce their weight. About 40 percent said they had skipped a meal during the past week, almost 15 percent said they had used diet pills, and 9.4 percent said they had forced themselves to vomit. White and Hispanic students of both sexes were more likely than black students to consider themselves to be overweight, the study found. In contrast, black and Hispanic males were more likely than white males to think they were underweight, the C.D.C. said. The study found that girls were consistently more likely than boys to take actions to reduce their weight. About half of the girls, but only 30 percent of the boys, said they had exercised during the past week in order to lose weight.
Although boys were far less likely to use diet pills or vomit in order to lose weight, 18.4 percent said that they, too, had skipped a meal recently in order to keep their weight down. All of these practices, with the exception of exercise, could be unhealthy and might increase the likelihood of obesity and weight gain in adulthood, the C.D.C. said.
Unhealthy weight-loss behaviors, the agency said, may cause nutritional deficiencies, decreases in growth gains, and delayed pubertal and psychosocial development.
To counter unhealthy weight-loss behaviors, schools should sponsor effective nutrition and physical-education classes, and offer healthy school meals, the report concluded. --E.R.
A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as C.D.C. Finds Many Girls Practice ‘Harmful’ Weight-Loss Techniques