Mommy, Am I Fat?
At what point does your daughter start saying that? I was talking to a friend of mine recently about girls and body image, and she mentioned a friend of hers had a reality check when her five-year-old put on a pair of jeans, turned around, and checked out her butt in the mirror. Because that's what she saw her mother do every day while getting dressed.
I had an eating disorder in my late teens and early twenties. I was a restricter, a puker, an overactive exerciser, you name it, I did it. My mother had nothing to do with it. She was thin, and she never made me feel bad or weird about my size, even though I was a chubby kid. She enrolled me in exercise classes, fed me the best she knew how and told me all the time she thought I was beautiful. Why did I develop an eating disorder? Personally, I think I was a ticking time bomb just waiting to happen.
So is there no hope for our girls? No, I don't think so. There are things we can do. For one thing, we can stop being self-critical in front of our kids.
Our very own Denise writes:
After a few of those types of posts, I thought it might be interesting to see just how often I saw women talking in negative terms about their bodies, their clothing, and food so I kept track last week. 72 blog posts by women fit into this category and one by a man. How often do you hear women talking negatively about their bodies, their clothing and the food that they eat - and how often do you hear men talk this way?
I know I personally try so hard to check my tongue every time I step on the scale. I look at the numbers, show them to my daughter, and tell her I have a range in which I try to stay because that's what is healthy. Then she weighs herself, not because I ask her to, but because I just did. These children are little sponges. The other day she looked at the number and said, "that's a lot!" And I said, "Actually, you're growing, and I think that's about right." But what if she was not about right? What if she were actually heavy? What would I say then?
Parents might think they are passing healthy, weight-conscious habits on to their children when in fact what they're often handing down are unhealthy weight obsessions. And for kids who are overweight, shaming and dieting just leads to more weight gain and sometimes eating disorders.
So how do we, as parents, fight both eating disorders and childhood obesity?
I'm not an expert, but as a survivor of an eating disorder, I'd say don't react with anger. Don't put your child on trial. Don't force her to do weigh-ins or offer her rewards for gaining weight. It just won't work. Instead focus on what hurts mentally instead of how it's playing out physically. Get professional help and support for yourselves and your family. Realize it's not a sprint, it's a marathon. An eating disorder isn't going to go away in a few weeks or even a few months, not once it's taken hold. It will be a day-to-day struggle for years until some switch is flipped in the brain that tells the child it's okay to be a normal weight again.
Here's some advice from Antiques Roadshow:
Research has shown that while parents can influence a child’s eating disorder, they are typically not the cause. Known as the Maudsley approach (after the London-based hospital it was developed in), family-centered therapy focuses on helping parents become a support system. Food is the “medicine” to treat the illness, and doctors coach parents and their child through meals and appropriate behavior in a clinical setting. After a few tries, families are then sent home to continue the treatment. Patients benefit from the love and support afamily network provides.
Bottom line, though: Pay attention to your child. Pay attention to what his or her normal weight is. Some children are naturally very slim and others are naturally stocky. What you're looking for is a rapid change that can't be explained with a growth spurt. If suddenly your child is eating every meal away from home, check in to make sure those meals are really being eaten. Take a look at the notches on the belts and the watches. Watch the hands for small cuts made by teeth when a finger is shoved down the throat. Watch for the growth of facial hair on a girl's cheeks or a brittleness to the hair on her head. Most of all, watch her face when she sits down to a plate of food. If she shudders or recoils, you've got problems.
If you suspect an eating disorder, don't ask about food. Ask about feelings. Eating disorders are a physical symptom of mental illness. You didn't cause it, but you can help fight it.