Like many people who read news reports last week that high school students at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, CA were picking their prom dates through a "prom draft" and spending money to score higher "positions," I was shocked and distraught. My thoughts turned not only to the girls who had to go through that humiliating experience, but to my own 16-year-old daughter and her friends. Hearing that her peers are still treating women like objects to be won at auction was a wakeup call.
I worried about the signal this incident sends to young women in my community and across the country who will assume that this sort of thing is accepted. And as a pediatrician at St. Joseph Health in Orange County, not far from Corona del Mar, I worried about my patients -- both younger girls and teens -- who sit in my office every day and ask how they can be slimmer and sleeker, not healthier and happier.
Most of all I worried that this incident will come and go just as so many others have. Headlines like the ones this week give us a jolt, but the outrage always seems to retreat just as soon as it has come. In fact, cases of bullying and objectifying of young women like the one at Corona del Mar happen all the time, if not always in the same form. Even this particular episode wasn't a one-off; the "prom draft" had been happening for two years. Every day girls and women are told by society that their looks matter first. It's a cruel double standard, one that we all bear responsibility for eliminating.
We must constantly be helping girls with their self-confidence, not just when the headlines blare. Research has shown that young women and even young girls feel intense pressure to meet body image standards created by society and the media. Many who don't live up to these unattainable measures suffer depression and anxiety, and lack the confidence they need to excel at school and in social settings.
In my 17 years of practicing medicine, I've learned that mental health and physical well-being are inextricably linked. Two years ago I decided to try and make a difference in my own community. I founded SWIM4ME, an all-inclusive swim club that gives kids access to swim equipment, coaches and facilities. The program has helped improve children's health and self-confidence, even resulting in academic gains for many participants. It's something that's much needed: According to one study, one in five 9-year-olds and nearly half of 14-year-olds report that they're focused on losing weight, even though most are within the normal weight range for their age (Field and colleagues, 1999). This obsession with being thinner can lead to unhappiness and distractions at school.
Exercise and wellness activities help kids feel comfortable with who they are and teach them that their appearance is a part of their identity to be proud of, and we need more programs like that do just that. But we must also seek new ways to educate both kids and parents, and make the right resources available. Sensitivity training, which often focuses on race, should be expanded in elementary, middle and high schools and should include role playing that teaches kids how to treat each other with respect.
Most of all, actions similar to those at Corona del Mel simply can't be tolerated. The boys there are partly to blame, but so are the other students who cheered them on, the girls who went along with it, and the parents who defended the practice. That's the easy way out.
Instead we need to open our eyes to a problem that will be around long after the din surrounding Corona del Mar has died down.