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February 28, 2006 > Body Image Should Fit Into Your Genes

Body Image Should Fit Into Your Genes

Eating Disorders Awareness Week

by Washington Hospital

Everybody's body type is different, though it's easy to get caught up in comparing yourself to a friend, relative or celebrity who you perceive to be "just the right size." We forget that aside from what we eat and how we exercise, our bodies are first and foremost a product of genetics. Genetics influence bone structure, body size, shape, and weight differently in every person. The week of February 26 to March 4 is designated as National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. This year, the focus is "Be Comfortable in Your Genes."

Eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening illnesses that are sometimes triggered when the reality of a person's body type doesn't match the emotional, cultural, or athletic expectations of an individual's body image. People with eating disorders struggle against their genetically-influenced body size and they try unhealthy dieting practices like binging, purging or starving oneself. Often there is a psychological as well as physical component to the illness. At the very least, fighting your natural body size can lead to a poor body image and negative self-esteem.

Dr. Shelli Bodnar, a family practice physician at Washington Hospital, says that she works to educate patients on the uniqueness of their individual bodies by explaining the Body Mass Index (BMI) as an indicator of a healthy size and shape for any specific person.

"I'll get a patient's height and weight and refer to the body mass index," Bodnar explains. "The BMI uses a formula to get a number that gives us an idea of where you should be for your height and your weight. I show people what is healthy and what is not. There is such a thing as being too low."

Your BMI number correlates with body fat. The relationship between your amount of body fat and your BMI number differs with age and gender. Women are more likely to have a higher percent of body fat than men for the same BMI. Older people may have more body fat than younger adults with the same BMI.

Dr. Bodnar says BMI is also important for determining when people are overweight, putting them at risk for diseases such as diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis and cardiovascular diseases.

BMI is used differently with children than it is with adults. The amount of body fat in children changes over the years as they grow. BMI for children and teens, ages 2 through 20, is based on gender and age. Dr. Bodnar warns that a teenager's body cannot be compared to the BMI of an adult because developmentally, they have more body fat.

"If parents are worried either way about whether their child is over or under weight, they should make an appointment with a doctor to see what is normal for that child," Bodnar says.

Dr. Bodnar says that sometimes it is difficult for parents to recognize the signs of an eating disorder as opposed to "regular teenage behavior." In general, parents should be on the lookout for:
* Is your child eating in front of you?
* Do they seem to be hiding when they're eating?
* Do they seem to be worried about how they look?

Although anorexia and bulimia are most often associated with girls and young women, boys can be susceptible as well, particularly with regards to weight requirements for sports. For example, a boy trying to achieve a certain weight for wrestling may over exercise, purge or even use laxatives and parents should be aware of these behaviors.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, parents can help prevent eating disorders by being a model of healthy self-esteem and body image, and showing acceptance for their genes. Every member of a family can adopt a healthy lifestyle of good nutrition and exercise fit for his or her individual body type. And choose to talk about yourself and your body with respect and appreciation.

The Washington Community Health Resource Library offers free screenings for your Body Mass Index (BMI). The screening machine also determines your blood pressure, pulse rate, weight and height. Screenings are available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information about the resources available at the Community Health Resource Library, call (510) 494-7009 or visit

For more information on the Body Mass Index, or to calculate your BMI, go to

For more information about eating disorders or National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, visit the National Eating Disorders Association Web site at

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