"The majority of the young children we see or hear about who are over concerned about their weight, interested in dieting, or who have already developed a distorted body image have mothers who are preoccupied with their own bodies," said Susan Willard, director of the Eating Disorders Treatment Center at River Oaks Hospital in New Orleans, and a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Tulane University School of Medicine.
The mothers, she said, "devote a great deal of time and energy to dieting, exercising, counting calories and fat grams, and expressing their own displeasure with their bodies."
Is Barbie to Blame?
Any child watching prime-time TV is also exposed to ultra-thin women. "How many adults talk about dieting, looking greater as they become thinner and thinner?" Beresin said.
According to recent studies, many fifth- and sixth-grade girls have tried to lose weight, Beresin said. It doesn't mean that they will develop anorexia nervosa, but it does mean that they are feeling the crush of cultural and social pressure, he said.
"As an example, look at the figure of Barbie. Her figure is an impossibility for any young girl or woman to achieve, and yet it is the image of beauty," Beresin said. "How many girls yearn to look like her, or other dolls of the same image?"
Part of the solution lies in changing how we, as a culture, portray images of men and women and how we treat people who are overweight, he said.
"There is no doubt that our culture, and especially upper- and upper-middle-class cultures promote this disorder," Beresin said.