I’m excited to have an expert writing a post for my blog today! I’ve been reading up on body image issues lately and I have been learning a lot. This is a very important topic to be educated on as it affects so many people in this world! And I want to be prepared as much as possible if it affects anyone in MY world.
Claire Mysko is the author of You’re Amazing! A No-Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self, a self-esteem manual for girls and the co-author of Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby. She served as the director of the American Anorexia Bulimia Association and spearheaded the launch of pioneering online communities at The National Eating Disorders Association, Girls Incorporated and SmartGirl.
3 Healthy Body Image Parenting Lessons Inspired by Vogue (Seriously)
This month’s Vogue magazine features an essay by Dara-Lynn Weiss, a mother who put her 7-year-old daughter on a diet after her pediatrician warned that she was clinically obese. Weiss not only restricted the girl’s food options, she publicly humiliated her and then took the public humiliation to a whole new level by documenting it for the whole world to read. Oh, and now she has a book deal. Sigh.
As someone with a history of eating disorders, an advocate for healthy body image, and a parent of a young daughter, this story makes me see red. It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as an isolated incident, but the truth is that there are lessons here for all of us.
1. Get a reality check on all the obesity talk
Obesity is THE hot health topic of the moment. It’s Michelle Obama’s top priority, schools everywhere are starting to screen kids for BMI (body mass index), and it’s widely accepted that obesity prevention programs are a necessity. We need them because we’re fighting a dangerous epidemic, right? Hold up a second. Let’s not forget that there’s another epidemic we need to be concerned about–one that is a serious threat to our children’s physical and mental health.
Disordered eating and poor body image affect more kids than ever before, and at younger and younger ages. Children, especially girls, by age 6 start to express concerns about their own weight or shape with 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) being concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting and taking laxatives. Many eating disorders professionals (myself included) are concerned that the blaring message that thinness is the ticket to good health is actually hurting children more than it’s helping them.
“There is concern that we have lost sight of avoiding harm in the process of addressing obesity,” says Susan Paxton, PhD, FAED of the Academy for Eating Disorders. “Further, we cannot ignore the opportunity to create a healthier environment, where people of all sizes are given the opportunity to lead healthy and productive lives, instead of singling out individual groups for reform based on weight alone.”
And that’s really the heart of the matter here. All children, regardless of their size, deserve access to fresh food. All children should be physically active. All children should learn that the number on a scale does not dictate their health–or their self-worth.
2. Be a positive body image role model
We can tell our kids that they’re beautiful all day every day, but if we’re constantly talking about how we’re too fat or we shouldn’t be “bad” by eating dessert, that’s what they’re going to absorb. It’s pretty close to impossible to feel 100% confident in a world where so many powerful industries bank on our insecurities, particularly those that have to do with appearance. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We all need to work hard to model healthy attitudes about food and weight for our children. And if we don’t know how to do that, we have to start asking for help.
There is a huge spectrum of disordered eating in this culture. Millions of people struggle with diagnosable eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. Many, many millions more fall into gray areas—chronic dieting, overexercising, secretive eating, body hatred, the list goes on. If your thoughts about food and weight are affecting your ability to enjoy life, that’s enough of a sign to reach out, for yourself and for the sake of the young people in your life.
One of the dangers of a story like Dara-Lynn Weiss’s (aside from spiking my blood pressure) is that it gives a platform to a mother who is obviously in need of professional help to deal with her own issues. It also sets up a scenario where she is so quickly deemed a crazypants that we can all quickly distance ourselves from her egregious behavior. In fact, while most of us aren’t going around screaming at our children for eating a salad with olive oil dressing, there are many who could stand to adjust the way we talk about our own bodies and the way we model healthy eating and exercise for our children. There’s no shame in slipping up—Lord knows the decks are stacked against us—but we’ve got to keep at it, and we’ve got to take the task seriously.
3. Teach media literacy
The most important thing we can do is to make sure that our kids are exposed to healthy attitudes and behaviors at home. But what about everywhere else? What about all those images of “perfection” and idealizations of thinness that are quite literally everywhere we turn—from the grocery store aisles to our computer screens? We can shield them from some of it when they’re very young, but not forever. The sooner we start encouraging children to be critical media consumers, the better. Teach them what an advertisement is. Teach them that nearly every image in magazines (like Vogue, for instance) and on billboards is retouched. Talk to them when media messages diverge from your values. Do everything in your power to help them understand that they are amazing, powerful, and precious not because of what they look like, but because of who they are.
For more information about eating disorders and body image issues, visit the National Eating Disorders Association website.