This week, the PTO sponsored a presentation on how to recognize, treat, and prevent eating disorders. I had a free period (and much grading to avoid), so I went to see if I could learn any tips on how to “immunize” Free against eating disorders. I have a relative who suffers from one, so I know the devastating effect it can have on the person who is suffering from a disorder as well as his/her family. I know how long the road to recovery can be, having seen it in friends too, and I know it’s best to try to prevent it rather than deal with it if/when it comes later.
It turns out that eating disorders are on the rise for 9-10 year old girls, if you can believe it, so I think it’s well worth sharing the tips that the doctor reviewed.
Here is a summarized version of what parents can do, according to Dr. Pettinato:
- Offer structured sit-down meals and snacks. Discourage grazing.
- Compliment your kids on their positive qualities and strengths, most of which should not be about appearance.
- Model and teach variety, balance, and moderation. Do not have forbidden foods or rigid food rules for yourself or your children.
- Discuss developmentally appropriate nutrition, but do not talk about it too much. Focus on health and energy, not appearance or weight.
- Challenge “fat talk” and weight bias. Do not allow teasing and do not make disparaging comments about your (or anyone else’s) weight.
- Talk to kids about issues that come up regarding food and their bodies, but do not bring up issues at meal times.
- Look at the big picture when it comes to growth and nutrition. Look at your child’s growth curve and be realistic about genetics. Avoid over concern. Accept your child for who s/he is and the body nature intended her/him to have.
- Keep TV and fashion magazine exposure to a minimum. Turn off TV during meal times and keep TVs out of bedrooms. Join them for shows they do watch. Have a dialogue and challenge portrayals with negative messages.
While these tips may seem like common sense, do you really adhere to all of them?
I don’t. Free regularly eats dinner in front of the TV, and I have all sorts of justifications for why, but from now on, I am going to make more of an effort to sit down and eat with her at the table.
The “no forbidden foods” is striking to me right now as I’ve been curbing my diet this month. I don’t think Free is aware of it, but then again, she notices a lot. The only thing I forbid her to have is soda, and when I occasionally have it myself in front of her, I find myself feeling guilty and/or trying to hide it. It makes more sense, however, to present it as a treat that I have once in a while, and it might be something she should be allowed to try soon too. I don’t want her to go crazy for it or sneak it down the line because she was never allowed to have it.
I’ll give myself points for teaching Free the “don’t talk about people’s bodies” golden rule from my own childhood. The rule is deeply ingrained in my psyche, and I repeat it to Free regularly. While I do read fashion and gossip magazines, I do it mostly away from Free and recycle them quickly so the images are not a regular part of our home’s clutter.
In term of putting the focus on “health and energy, not appearance or weight,” I think I do ok, but it’s not always easy. We talk about how good it feels to be strong and exercise, and Free knows she needs to eat all kinds of foods to give her energy. She is allowed to choose her own treats and usually does so in a balanced way.
I don’t weigh myself regularly and avoid critiquing my own body in front of Free. It’s not the script that’s always in my head, but faking it at times with her has helped me believe it more. I watched an Oprah show years ago that made the point in a simple and effective way: mothers have an enormous influence over their daughters, who watch them closely and mimic them in every area. What we model is so much more important than what we tell them, and so we must actively work to model self-acceptance to give them a fighting chance to resist the pressures that they will face elsewhere. Free still sees me naked in the shower or while dressing, and she’s naturally curious about how a woman’s body differs from her own growing body. I try to model an appropriate sense of modesty while also affirming that I am comfortable in my own skin. I recommend belly kisses and booty shaking, which go a long way toward a sense of body appreciation, whether you’re eight or thirty-eight.
As I write, Free and her friend are snuggled into sleeping bags on the floor in front of me after a full day of skiing with Free’s dad. (Yes, despite her poor behavior at school early in the week, on Thursday and Friday she was “much improved”–enough so that she earned her privileges back.)
When I look at Free, I see a strong, beautiful girl who is healthy and energetic. I know she will go through awkward growth spurts, and I need to help buffer her against the negative feelings that she may have about herself as a result. It won’t always be easy, but I’m going to fight the good fight to keep loving my own body as the best way to help her do the same.