Japanese girls weigh less than ever, according to an Education Ministry survey of 650,000 Japanese children aged 5 to 17. The average weight of girls in Japan was at its lowest since data started being compiled in 1948, even though average height has increased by five to eight centimeters. These worrisome results come primarily from an obsession with body image and increased dieting.

More Japanese teens identify themselves as fat than in any other country, according to a survey of high school students in Japan, China, South Korea and the United States by the Japan Youth Research Institute in February 2011. Only 26 percent of Japanese, the lowest share of all the countries, said they were satisfied with their bodies. Meanwhile, 41 percent of elementary school girls in Japan thought they were too fat and a record 46 percent of Japanese girls, some as young as 6, reported having dieted.

Excessive dieting to obtain an ideal image can be dangerous for teenagers. Restricted calorie consumption slows down metabolism and interferes with attention, mood and physical growth. The brain’s continual development through the 20s also requires a balanced diet, as well as exercise. There is also pressure on young men to look good by being thin, but women tend to try to achieve their ideal through dieting and men through exercise. The difference is critical.

Dissatisfaction with body image can be traced in part to the media. In Japan, the fashion industry continues to represent beauty as thinness. With easier access to more images from the fashion world through the Web, thinness has become the unrelenting standard of attractiveness. Young people are especially vulnerable to the false belief that weighing less will automatically make them happier and more attractive.

Schools can help young people with this issue. Educating young women, as well as young men, about their health would help them avoid excessive dieting and discover ways to be satisfied with their bodies, as well as their minds. Understanding the connections between health, diet, exercise and body size should be a larger part of school health programs.

Young people also need to be taught visual literacy, the ability to read the meanings of the thousands of images they see on daily basis. Once they learn to critically evaluate the messages and values in those images, they will be better able to resist the pressure of media images and make informed choices. The health of Japan’s women depends on it.

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