Following is an interview with Jarrett Lerner, author of A Work in Progress. This book poignantly illustrates the painful childhood experiences of a boy with negative body image and disordered eating. It shares what it feels like to be singled out and body shamed in elementary school, and how easy it is to slip into disordered eating in an attempt to regain dignity and control.
Jarrett’s book, which is based on his own experience as a boy with negative body image and disordered eating, touched my heart deeply. Though I’m not a boy, I was that kid. And for me, Jarret’s book beautifully describes what it felt like to believe my body was wrong and to desperately want to change it by any means possible.
This is Jarrett’s thirteenth book. A Work In Progress is written for kids aged 8-12 and tells the powerful story of a boy with negative body image and disordered eating. Here’s my interview with Jarrett:
Q: When did you first feel bad about your body?
Jarrett: I recall very clearly as a little kid we belonged to a pool and I loved it, I was in it all the time. And then my body changed and I was not a big fan of the pool anymore. And I remember being on a trip and really wanting to go into this amazing pool with all these cool features. I would make excuses to not go in it. And when I finally did go in it, I asked my mom to take me at night and in a T-shirt. So I swam at night in a T-shirt to have that experience I wanted.
I was worried about what would happen if I showed my body in public. And then I had a moment in elementary school where I was publicly body-shamed. And that sort of intensified it all and led to a hyper-awareness about my body and eating. I landed on this idea that I’m just going to do something to change my body by changing my eating.
Q: What do you think influenced how you felt about your body?
Jarrett: At the time there was nothing like body positivity or body neutrality. It didn’t exist. We didn’t have any role models in the public eye doing that. If you go back two decades, which is when much of this was going on in my life, the messages that were out there were really stark and shameful.
You could barely see a movie or pick up a book without cheap jokes about someone’s size being used for comic relief. So that’s what I was ingesting. And then on the other side of things, there was the constant barrage of fad diets every week. It was always a new diet. It was a very intense time.
I was able to convince myself that the disordered eating and over-exercise I was doing was actually healthy because I wasn’t fully starving myself, I wasn’t bulimic. By staying on the other side of that line I convinced myself I was actually being healthy by watching what I ate and exercising. I didn’t know what disordered eating was until I was an adult.
Q: What do you think is unique about being a boy with negative body image and disordered eating?
Jarrett: Generally speaking, I think that boys who suffer from body image and eating issues have this sort of added issue to wrestle with, which is the concept of masculinity. So often growing up, the thing I heard most from my peers and even from adults in my life was man up. I can’t even count how many times in situations where either I or someone around me was showing vulnerability and were told to man up.
So that was something that I thought I had to do when I was struggling with my body. It was man up. Man up when I wanted to shout out and cry for help.
I think that’s changing. I think we have more models of male vulnerability in our culture, and more men who are more comfortable showing emotion. But I think it’s still an issue. I still hear “man up” or something similar when I’m in schools.
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Q: How did it feel to have body image issues and disordered eating?
Jarrett: I remember finding two books that broached the subject of eating disorders, and they were extreme cases with girls. And I’m glad those books existed, and I’m glad that today there’s more of them. But for me, who didn’t require hospitalization and was a boy, I think in some ways reading those stories actually did more damage than good.
Not seeing boys with body image and eating issues made me think that there was something even more wrong with me, that I was the only boy on Earth who was experiencing these things, that they were the territory of girls, and that I was doubly troubled because I was a boy experiencing it.
I felt so alone and overwhelmed. Even when surrounded by people, even in a caring family, even with friends and even with things going on socially, I felt very alone. I was overwhelmed by the intensity and consistency of the negative thoughts in my head. And I felt incapable of getting help. I convinced myself that the destructive things I was doing were constructive and positive.
My parents would have been the perfect people to open up to about it. I wish I had spoken to my parents and my friends. I wish I had felt comfortable and said what I was thinking and feeling, but I didn’t.
Q: How would you describe your journey out of disordered eating?
Jarrett: In the book, it’s Will versus the Will Monster and thinking he has to tame it. But he realized that fighting wasn’t working. Like Will, I had to stop fighting and sit down with these thought processes and obsessions and confront them. And instead of trying to slay this monster, I had to accept it and sit down with it and say, this is me and it wants something. It needs something, and maybe there’s another way to get it.
My best therapy was writing. I discovered my own sort of cognitive behavioral therapy, where writing things down helped me release my thoughts and helped me grasp them in a way that I could get beyond them and write myself a new story.
I also discovered a new group of friends that was much more accepting and open minded and much like Markus in the book. They were radically accepting and offered love to everyone, no matter the differences of their body or outlook or background. And I think all of that instilled confidence that allowed me to manage it better.
Q: How do you view recovery from disordered eating?
I’ve come to think of myself as in recovery. It helps me greatly to remind myself that it’s okay to have bad days when food and body stuff crops up. On days when it’s harder to quiet that voice and be nice, I remind myself to give it a hug instead of trying to chase it away, because that only leads to worse outcomes.
And thinking of myself like that has allowed me to extend myself the same sort of grace that I would any friend or family member. And that’s really the whole theme of the book, this idea of being a work in progress, that you might look at yourself today and say, “oh, man, I don’t love this thing I did or this part of me or the way I acted. But tomorrow is a new day, and I’m never going to be perfect. I’m always evolving. I’m always changing.”
Q: Why did you write this book?
Jarrett: I think the greatest opportunity I have right now is to openly say to kids “I’m going to talk to you about disordered eating and body dysmorphia and how I struggled with it for years.” I think the act of sharing encourages and inspires other people to share their stories. I hope that I serve as a model for kids who can maybe feel much more comfortable and even eager to share.
And that’s what compelled me to finish putting this book together. It was my motivation to finish this book and go on tour with it and stand in front of auditoriums of kids making myself vulnerable. I know in every auditorium I step into, there will be kids who are silently suffering and who feel like I’m speaking right to them. And if I’d had someone in 5th, 6th, 7th grade talk about it publicly in front of me, it would have been amazing and I think it would have gotten me into a healthier place much sooner.
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Q: How do you think your experience has informed how you parent your own kids?
Jarrett: I hope that I model vulnerability and openness and sharing of difficulties, external and internal. In terms of eating and food and body image, I think I’m extremely sensitive and careful about what I both don’t do and what I do. And I try to make sure that none of the hang ups that I continue to have and continue to struggle with seep out into my own language and my own responses to anything that they’re doing.
If you look at the data, chances are that my children will feel insecure about something or other. Maybe it’s the quality of their skin once they hit puberty. Maybe it’s their hairline, or it can be anything. But I think it’s exceedingly rare that someone gets through life without some sort of insecurity.
So I hope I’m just sensitive to that, that I’m both a good role model and a supportive parent, and that I can provide information should anything ever crop up or at least I get a sense that something’s cropping up.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to change the conversation about eating disorders and empower people to recover. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource that supports parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate their kid’s eating disorder recovery.
Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.
Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply-feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.