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Talking to Kids About Body Image

Dear Better Way Moms,

My name is Michelle, and I’m so proud to say that I am in my fifth year of recovery from an eating disorder.

My story is very different from most. I lost my mom when she was 46, and I was 15.

She suffered from an eating disorder her whole life, and that disorder largely contributed to her death.

I want to be clear, I had an absolutely wonderful mother, who happened to be extremely sick. The disclaimer here is that I ask you not to judge my mom’s behavior, as her behaviors were the result of her illness. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate when compared with any mental illness, higher than schizophrenia, depression, you name it, and my life has been living proof of this.

A thin body is the ideal of our society. Yet the messages we receive through media tell us that we should be eating whatever we want without necessarily having to exercise. These unrealistic and conflicting messages have caused a lot of harm.

Body ImageParents often ask me how they can approach body image in a positive way with their children. My mom did not do such a great job at modeling proper food and body behavior. Nevertheless, there were actions she could have taken to aid me in developing a more positive body image.

Given what I’ve experienced, I would like to share with you some tips to address eating disorders. Along with these tips are the warning signs, and my thoughts on the dos and don’ts of helping kids have a positive body image. I believe that these ideas are relevant for children, adolescents, young adults and adults.

Tip #1: Monitor your environment
It is often said that genetics load the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger.

One helpful thing you can do to avoid pulling the trigger would be to THROW OUT THE SCALE! You don’t need it.

If you really cannot let go of the scale, do not, under any circumstances, weigh yourself in front of your children. If you want to keep track of your weight, do so by the clothes you wear and noticing if your clothes are getting too big or too small. In addition, I know people who have had success by only allowing mirrors in the bathroom of their home. This might sound extreme, but it’s one way to teach children that they are worth more than what they see.

Tip #2: Avoid negative talk, especially in front of your children
Avoid saying anything negative about yourself, especially in front of your kids. You must stop the FAT TALK!

Fat talk says things like, “My legs are so chunky, I need to drop a few pounds.”

As a child, I would admire my mom by watching her get ready. I remember being astounded by her beauty, and would tell her, “Wow, Mom, you are so pretty!”

Her response would be that she was not pretty, but that I was. She could not accept, or take a compliment, whether from friends or strangers, or even her own daughter.

You can imagine the message this sent to me.

Even though my mom told me I was pretty, the fact that she could not accept it made me unable to accept my beauty. How you accept compliments sets the tone for your own children. Would it be so terrible to say out loud, “Thank you!”? Then you can tell your daughters/sons with confidence how beautiful they are too.

Tip #3: Focus on character traits, and not physical attributes
Another tip that I think is useful would be to always focus on the inside, first.

Take the focus away from beauty, looks, body, and always focus on what counts. If your child is great at spelling, tell him or her that. Are they super caring of their friends, are they a good sister/daughter/son/cousin? Tell them.

They will learn that their actions and character traits are what define who they are.

Tip #4: Provide a balanced diet and incorporate healthy habits
My mom would make me put away junk food when my dad was around.

So from an early age I learned there is such a thing as a “bad” food, and secrecy around eating poorly.

Obviously, this wasn’t optimal. We all know it’s best to make sure that kids are eating from all the food groups, and that they learn to eat until they are full. This means we need to eat slowly, as it can take up to half an hour for the brain to fully process that the body is satiated.

Another critical factor is to avoid making kids eat everything on their plate. None of us wants to be wasteful, so we can dish out smaller portions, and remind ourselves that there is always more, if we want it.

A balanced diet, along with exercise, should be incorporated into our lives, and the lives of children.

If your child doesn’t participate in sports or dance or any exercise related activity, you may want to find a way to incorporate it. Encourage them when feeling sad, to go for a walk, or even take a shower, instead of turning to food for emotional support. And of course, that example starts with the parents.

Tip #5: Be observant and act
If you notice your child turning to food when they are sad, depressed, etc., you may want to intervene, gently.

Tangible signs of a developing eating disorder might include; not eating their lunch at school, constantly talking about their body/weight/being fat, going to the bathroom right after meals, an increase in pickiness, asking caloric amounts of food, and a noticeable increase/decrease in their weight.

If you want to learn about additional signs and symptoms, check out www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.

Implement these tips in your life, and model the best behavior that you can for your sons and daughters. Your children are worth more than a number on a scale, or a size on a tag. Remember, you have the power help your kids love their bodies and develop a positive body image!

For more information or questions, check out recoveryflight.org, or e-mail me at flightforrecovery@yahoo.com.

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