Too often, when a child develops an eating disorder, we blame the victims, the child and the parents, instead of looking at society. I think that eating disorders are much bigger than any individual, and we ignore cultural forces to the detriment of the people whom we are trying to help.
Body control is a cultural pursuit
We live in a culture that is convinced that we have the power to control almost every aspect of our bodies. With the exception of our feet and height, it is normal in our society to pursue diet and exercise with the express purpose of changing the shape and size of our body parts. When it becomes apparent that these techniques won’t work, it is not unusual to turn to surgical procedures to remove or enhance “trouble areas.”
Our culture promotes messages about the ideal “normal” body that we are supposed to control and maintain in a steady state from puberty through death, but it is impossible to achieve “normal” since it doesn’t exist. As soon as our children’s bodies start developing, they become susceptible to messages about how they can and should control their emerging body shape. This is not only emotionally harmful; it is also physically dangerous.
As far as parenting goes, from the time we give birth, mothers are talking about “getting their bodies back,” but that’s not actually normal. Just because you see it in every single magazine does not mean it is normal or possible to return to the body you had prior to having children. For many of us, as our kids hit puberty, we are hitting pre-menopause, and our bodies change again.
Body change is entirely healthy throughout our lives, but only very rarely do we hear messages about accepting our bodies as they are, and honoring them for what they can do instead of what they look like.
Notice and actively acknowledge the societal messages about changing our bodies to fit a false “normal.” Talk about the fact that what is normal is a diversity of body size and shape, and what is not normal is thinking that we should all look the same, or even that we as individuals should control and maintain the same body throughout our adult lives.
Loving ourselves feels wrong
If you are dieting, exercising or pursuing surgery to change your body, then it would appear that you don’t love your body as it is. Children have a very hard time separating the body from the self, so the message you are inadvertently sending to your child when you attempt to change your body is that you don’t love yourself. This is a role modeling behavior that suggests hatred of one’s self is more acceptable than self-acceptance and self-love.
How do you accept compliments? If someone says that you look great, do you answer with a demurring “oh, this old thing?” Or do you mention that you are trying to lose weight? Or do you ignore the compliment awkwardly? These behaviors model to our children that we are not deserving of other people’s acceptance and love. Rather than answering with “thank you! I feel great,” we demur or deflect compliments, teaching our children that it’s not OK to feel great about ourselves.
Think about how you behave towards yourself. Do you love yourself as you are? Are you happy to receive compliments just for being yourself, as you are? Consider how you can build your own sense of self-acceptance and self-love for the sake of your child’s health.
Body image impacts all of us
We typically assume that body image impacts only the females in the family, but one of the things I do as a family therapist working with a child who has an eating disorder is ask the dad about his history with his body image. It is usually surprising for the child to learn that dad most likely experienced some bullying or at least discomfort with his body during puberty. Boys can be extremely tough on each other about their body height and size and, of course, their genitals.
Many times learning about a parents’ body issues can be a valuable part of the healing process for children because they realize that they are not alone in feeling uncomfortable with their bodies. Many think that if “even Dad” felt ashamed sometimes, perhaps this disorder is larger than just me.
Talk with your child about how your own body image impacted you as a child, in adolescence, and today. Have open and honest discussions about how it feels to live in a body that doesn’t look like the ones you see in magazines, and how other people can say things that make us feel uncomfortable about our bodies.
Parents are more engaged, but kids still get eating disorders
One thing I’ve seen is that parents are becoming much more engaged in their kids’ lives, which is generally a good thing, but it can be surprising to some of them when their children still have challenges like eating disorders. I meet with a lot of parents who are wonderful parents, and they feel they have really done everything right, and are surprised to hear that their child isn’t doing perfectly well. Their children often feel shame and guilt because, given everything their parents did for them, they don’t feel they are as good as they “should” be.
Eating disorders have many contributing factors, and a parents’ behavior alone is neither the single cause nor a single protectant. One of the most important elements of eating disorder development is the child’s genetic level of sensitivity. A highly-sensitive child is much more likely to get an eating disorder, and it can’t always be prevented. And, all of the societal factors mentioned here are important as well.
There is no guaranteed way to raise a healthy, well-adjusted child because our children are their own people, and we are not in control of their life outcomes. I find that treating a child who has an eating disorder goes much more smoothly when the parents are able to accept this fact and ignore the guilt and shame that many people in our society assign to parents as the root of all problems.
Remind yourself that parenting is not an exact science, and you can be a wonderful parent and your child may still struggle in ways you hoped they would not. You do not need to look backwards and feel shame; just focus on the next steps and helping your child heal.
Beth Mayer, LICSW, has been working in the eating disorders field for 34 years. She has been the Executive Director of MEDA for 15 years. She is nationally recognized for her clinical work with eating disorders and has spoken at conferences around the country. In addition to eating disorders, Beth specializes in treating adolescents and families. Beth has served as an adjunct professor at Simmons College, Boston University, Boston College, Lesley University and Salem State College, supervising MSW and LMHC graduate student interns. She is currently the co-chair of the NEDA network and serves on many local and national committees. Beth holds a B.S. in Clinical Psychology from Quinnipiac University and a Master of Social Work Degree from Boston College.