In between the fluorescent blurbs "Love Your Hair!" and "Sex & Men Special: Pro Tips You Deserve to Know and Other Hot Tips," the February issue of Marie Claire magazine slips in a more provocative caption: "Why America Hates Fat Women."

The magazine devotes several pages to the prejudice Americans hold against obese females, comparing it to racism, sexism and homophobia. And who graces Marie Claire's glossy pink cover? Sensual and slim Penelope Cruz.

The United States is fanatically obsessed with body image. Television feeds this nauseating addiction with shows from Fat Actress and The Biggest Loser to America's Next Top Model, Nip Tuck and Dr. 90210. Wander into any bookstore and you can peruse all sorts of titles about losing weight or achieving celebrity glamour. According to the Skincare Foundation, the United States is home to more than 18,000 tanning salons, with more than one million people frying in them daily.

Let's not even get into some of the ridiculous fad diets out there.

But you know what? It sells. And students are not immune to the craze. The website states that in 2003, more than 223,000 cosmetic procedures were performed on patients 18 or younger, and of those almost 39,000 were surgical procedures such as nose reshaping, breast lifts, breast augmentation, liposuction and tummy tucks. Only in December 2004 did the American Society of Plastic Surgeons take an official stand against breast augmentation for patients under 18.

In college, the cult of the body is pronounced.

"Body image dissatisfaction, weight concerns, eating problems, and physical attractiveness have become especially significant issues on college campuses, with up to 90 percent of college students reporting that they worry about body image," a 2005 study from the Journal of College Student Development noted. The study also claimed that poor body image "is undoubtedly a central issue for young women and may be becoming one for young men."

Why do we lose all common sense when we look in the mirror? Health care professionals must want to strangle us with their stethoscopes. Most routinely speak out in favor of healthy eating and moderate, regular exercise simply because being very overweight — like being very underweight — is unhealthy.

"If you're not eating enough to sustain your weight, it shows a nutritional deficiency. If you're very overweight, it shows that you're eating more than your body can possibly process," observed Donna Weihofen, a senior nutritionist at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. Neither is good. Weihofen noted that an unhealthy weight puts you at a higher risk for some diseases, and in the long run, like smoking, it leads to a shorter life.

While Hollywood pushes a beauty ideal that few can attain, a far greater percentage of Americans struggle with obesity than anorexia. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between 1999 and 2000, 64 percent of American adults were overweight and 30 percent were obese. While unnecessary surgery and extreme diet-plans are not solutions to America's distorted body imagery, neither is stomping your foot and saying that obesity is perfectly healthy.

At a time when E! television hosts countdowns for the most desirable celebrity bodies, and magazines scream at us with captions such as "this is the year you'll get a great body," it's easy to forget that life doesn't revolve around being hot. There's definitely nothing wrong with looking good, but why the insanity?

If you eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly, and if you set realistic goals for yourself and recognize that the world is full of different body types, you'll spend a lot less time overanalyzing the nutrition facts on your cereal box or guilt-tripping yourself for every crumb of brownie. And you'll spend a lot more time savoring your meals.

"Instead of relaxing and really enjoying our food, we're thinking 'what's this going to do to me?'" Weihofen says. "Eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full. Listen to your body."

Sounds simple, doesn't it? It's not glamorous, but it's worth considering the next time you look in the mirror.

Cynthia Martens ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in Italian and European Studies.