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Face in the Mirror: WSU Professor to Study Body Image Issues for Post-Bariatric Surgery Patients

PULLMAN, Wash.—Linda Bradley recently asked students of her “Multicultural Perspectives on the Body and Dress” class at Washington State University to physically describe their ideal woman or man. The ideal woman, students said, should be 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet tall, weigh 110 to 115 pounds and be a size 0 to 2.

“That’s pretty much what models look like,” said Bradley, a professor and curator in the Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles. Ten years ago, the ideal woman was a size 4; 20 years ago, she was a size 8; and 50 years ago, thanks to Marilyn Monroe, she was a size 12. “So the ideals are getting harder and harder to reach.”

Today’s ideal man hasn’t changed from how he was pictured 5,000 years ago in ancient Greece—tall, broad shoulders, narrow waist, with firm pecs and six-pack abs. Bradley said images of Greek pottery or sculpture “look like our Calvin Klein ads.

“Body image is a huge problem in America, and the reason is that our ideals are so unbelievable,” she added. “Media is one of the biggest offenders for this.”

So what does the real woman in America look like? She’s 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighs 145 pounds and is a size 14, Bradley said. Between the ideal and reality are “multibillion-dollar businesses messing with our heads and making us dissatisfied with our bodies.”

This warped body image has given rise to a host of problems garnering national attention, including obesity, eating disorders and extreme exercise regimens. Bradley, who has taught about the subject since 1986, will head a new multidisciplinary project to explore how people who have undergone bariatric, or weight loss, surgery deal with body image and what impacts this may have for their families.

“A great deal of research has confirmed the positive physiological impacts of bariatric surgery; less has been conducted on the psychosocial aspects of changes in patients following the surgery,” she explained. “There is evidence in the literature to indicate that in the postoperative period, people may find improvements in many areas, such as body image, but that there can be varied impacts on family relationships, particularly with regard to spouses and children.”

For example, some preliminary evidence suggests that divorce rates may be higher for postsurgical patients, Bradley said. A new appearance and confidence are more attractive to others, which can affect the social balance in a marriage. Postsurgical patients also may have children who tend to be obese because weight issues are scrutinized more. So Bradley hopes the new research will help address these areas.

“Basically, it’s about re-educating people about body image issues,” she said. “If we dealt with body image early on, it would lead to less obesity and less need for these expensive surgical procedures,” which typically run between $20,000 and $30,000.

Bradley and the interdisciplinary team recently received a $5,000 seed grant from WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences that will cover an April 27 seminar in Spokane, touching on the obesity problem for health care practitioners and academics. Others on the research project represent the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center, College of Nursing, College of Pharmacy, Department of Human Development, and Health and Wellness Services; Madigan Army Medical Center; and Rockwood Bariatric Surgical Group and Weight Loss Surgery Center.

After the seminar, Bradley and the research team will work on developing an external grant to submit to funding sources for obesity research, including the National Institutes of Health, American Diabetes Association and American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Foundation. Once funded, team members will survey individuals who come to Rockwood’s monthly information sessions for prospective bariatric patients in Spokane. The research project will follow those who decide on surgery and track them as they negotiate the protocols, ultimately have surgery and return for follow-up visits.

Bariatric surgery is expected to increase over the next decade for several reasons, Bradley said, including a projected doubling of the number of Americans with diabetes by 2034, an aging U.S. population, the continuing obesity epidemic and procedure/follow-up refinements that will reduce complications.

Slower to change are the attitudes about our bodies that lead to obesity in the first place, she stressed. Few companies take the initiative to portray women and men realistically in their communications media. A notable exception is the Dove® Campaign for Real Beauty, started in 2004 after a study showed “that the definition of beauty had become limiting and unattainable,” according to the campaign’s website (http://www.dove.us/Social-Mission/campaign-for-real-beauty.aspx).

“It’s in process, as we learn to appreciate other cultures, but we’re also finding that the last socially accepted form of discrimination is against obese people,” Bradley said. “It’s such an awful thing we live with here. It’s all our market value, and, unfortunately, that hasn’t changed much.”

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Media Contacts

Linda Bradley, professor and curator, (509) 335-7890