Childhood obesity is something I have heard about for years. It’s a hot topic, the subject of numerous debates, and even legislation. But what about the opposite ….childhood anorexia, bulimia, and fad diets? It does exist. Drastic body changes are often ignored or shelved as puberty or “losing baby fat” but I believe eating disorders begin in the about 5th grade for many young girls.
My house is full of tween girls constantly. I refer to it as the “house of tweens” in a joking manner but to be honest…it’s ALWAYS full of young girls. I live on a street with 6 girls, very close in age, they have grown up together, and they are in and out of here all day every day. Throw in a school friend coming over once in a while, or one of the tween boys in the neighborhood, and you get the idea why I say “house of tweens”. It’s fine by me, these kids have been here so long they just blend in. They know the rules, and I know what my kid is doing. Most importantly, with this constant connection, I am confident in the fact that I have established a relationship with my daughter of comfort, respect, and open communication. If she has an issue, she will come to me first and discuss it, many of her friends will too.
All this leads to the subject of this post: Tweens and their body image. I hear first-hand what’s on their minds. Social issues, school, parents, boys, trends, what they like and don’t…and lately, the word FAT!.. from all of them. They are becoming aware of what is considered attractive. Often I hear them discussing weight and have witnessed them compare the sizes of their legs.
This is very personal to me. I began thinking the same thing at this age. I was always taller than my many of friends, so at a very young age, I equated tall with big. I wanted to conform, be short and tiny like my friends. Looking back on my middle school pictures I wonder what was I thinking?? I already was smaller than most of them, being tall made me seem even smaller. However, in my mind at that time, looking down on my friends to talk to them, I thought I was “big”. I never spoke to my parents about it, or anyone really, I just began to feel that if I wasn’t ” super skinny” I would be seen as huge. No one ever suspected that I had a flicker of doubt about myself either. Growing up, I was generally flamboyant and fully confident. Just this “one thing” made me self-conscious. It was a real fear. Just like these kids. Peer pressure begins at this age, and often molds the minds of kids. Middle school began my “skinny” mission, and I did so without eating. I did this off and on for years, it was easy to say I ate a friend’s house, or I ate before they got home from work, we ate pizza at practice, or whatever. My parents were hands on, great parents but I managed to get this by them. Most likely because they never suspected I would do such a thing. I was perfect to them, should have been perfect to me, right?
I have a healthy relationship with food now and I have for years. It was created dramatically when I finally passed out on my parents in what was then called a “silent seizure” and rushed to the hospital. Doctors ran test and couldn’t find any source. When they began testing me for brain tumors at the age of 15…I told my father I hadn’t eaten anything except orange juice in 5 days…(and had been maintaining such a pattern for months)…. I will never forget the look on his face. He immediately called the doctor back in. They decided to call off the test they had ordered and order other test. Twenty four hours later, I had been diagnosed with a heart murmur, anorexia, anemia, and a multitude of other issues associated with starvation. My parents were so upset; I didn’t look like those extreme anorexic cases they had seen on TV. I was on the dance and softball teams, was very social, made excellent grades, and appeared healthy and fit…. so how did this happen? My parents cried as we set there that morning listening to these reports. I felt horrible for letting them down. I honestly did not think at the time that I was doing any permanent damage to myself. Feeling scared and ashamed, I agreed to stop this nonsense. I was put in counseling, nutrition classes, under doctor care, and released. Six months later, I was a happy, healthy 15-year-old kid. It wasn’t easy. Thankfully, I no longer had any of the health issues I had been diagnosed with. I was lucky! Not all young girls who do such drastic things to themselves are able to recover fully. Considering I had participated in extreme fad diets for many years by the time this happened to me, I am extremely blessed to not have permanent health issues. The best part? I wasn’t “fat” either. In fact, I looked better after gaining some weight back. I have shared this story with all these kids. In part, so they know I understand what they are going through, but mostly so they will see the dangers of what they are doing to themselves.
I don’t want my kid, or her friends, to experience those years of self-doubt. I’ve learned to love all these girls! Over the past several months, I have been relentless in reading about the signs of childhood eating disorders, listening to these kids, reflecting back on my own experience, and making a conscious effort to build these kids up. Self esteem is the #1 life changing emotion to me. With it, you will take risks and challenge yourself everyday, without it…you will “get by”. I want my girls to soar!
I have had random conversations with these kids about this. Listening intensely to their answers while bearing in mind that they are telling me what they think I want to hear. Overhearing their conversations in my living room has also added some insight. A few weeks ago, I did an “interview” with them. Each one was told exactly what this was about, their answers were anonymous and all of it on a tween level. They took my survey voluntarily, it was a fun night, and I received very valuable information. Here’s a few responses:
When you go to school everyday. Do you watch what other people look like and compare yourself to those girls? 8 out of 8 said YES
Do you feel good about yourself everyday? 8 out of 8 said NO
Have you ever skipped eating meals because you thought you needed to lose weight? 8 out of 8 said yes
If you were wanting to lose weight, how would you do it. 7 said “don’t eat” or “stop eating”, 1 said “eat only lettuce”
Can you be pretty and have friends if you are overweight? 1 said yes, 7 said No
Do you believe that fit is better than skinny? 6 said yes, 2 said No
There were other questions, but you get the idea. These young girls have been programmed to believe that if they have perfect bodies, their problems will be few and far between. They have also shared stories with me about what their friends are doing to lose weight. One, only chews…never swallows it. Another, refuses to eat lunch or dinner. A third, is actively taking diet pills her mother bought for her!! They are all in 5th or 6th grade..that’s alarming to me. Especially remembering that I did the same thing. I remember this very well. My peers and I did similar things. Ironically, I thought the world had come a long way since I was a tween… apparently I am wrong about that!
Parents who teach and promote healthy nutrition at home often don’t suspect that these kids are listening to their friends now. Tweens already have a life they don’t want mom or dad to know about. Their separation is normal and healthy. As parents, we need to be aware that even though we’re thrilled they are not in need of constant attention, they need us. Their friends are their biggest influence at this age. What one “popular” kid is doing, they will all do. Starving themselves and being on fad diets seems ”cool” at this age. It’s important to note this is not limited to young girls. Boys engage in the same fad diets. Statistics show that tweens participate in this type of dieting more often than anyone is aware. It’s not only unhealthy to them physically, it is extremely unhealthy to their emotional well-being.
Happy and Healthy is Beautiful!! That’s the beauty I want for my kids. Not the “perfection” I see my oldest and her friends thinking they have to be. The falsehood that being perfectly skinny will make all their other problems go away. It’s a shame our society supports this mentality through advertisements, pop culture, and headline fashion news. Since we do, it’s up to parents to establish healthy boundaries with our kids. Teach them to be fit and respect their bodies. The best advice I ever received was in those nutrition classes I reluctantly took. “Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re satisfied. Your body is your clock, it will tell you when to eat and when to stop.” Simple. Certainly simple enough for tweens for understand too.
Kids with high self-esteem are less effected by peer pressure, bullying, and poor self-image. A high regard for themselves will also deter them from following the crowd. In essence, kids with high self-esteem are less likely to be vulnerable. Self esteem can be the key to prevention of many social issues with tweens.
I have found some very good ideas on establishing self-esteem in young girls. Here’s a list:
1) praise your kids..find something to praise them about everyday
2) Be a role model. You have to eat right, exercise and feel good about yourself if you expect them to do it.
3) when they comment on girls on TV or friends at school that are so perfect, counter that with something perfect about them
4) show kids that you are vulnerable too. When I’m wrong, I will tell them so. When I don’t have the answer, I will tell them. My favorite phrase is “you don’t have to know all the answers, just be resourceful enough to find them”…she echoes this now, we look up things together all the time.
5) Teach kids the value of food. What vitamins and minerals they need and how to get them. Teach kids to read food labels and understand what “whole” foods are
6) Be approachable, it may be awkward for your kid to ask you something sometimes, but I would rather 5 mins of awkward than her get her advice from someone else.
7) Watch the language you use. Instead of using words like “diet”, “skinny” , or “losing weight” when you talk about yourself or others. Use words like “fit”, “healthy”, or “well-being”. Use words with positive associations to them.
8) Let your kids experience disappointment!! Protecting our kids too much is causing adverse results. Kids who don’t know how to handle their own rejections, fears, and disappointments will be subject to peer pressure and long-term personal struggles. Sometimes you have to let your kids get hurt so that they grow.
Statistics show that kids between the ages of 9 and 14 are vulnerable to eating disorders and other socially driven misconceptions. They are strongly influenced by their peers. As they begin to pull away from their parents, they rely completely on advice from friends and social groups. They absolutely do have secrets from their parents, and they also don’t suspect that we realize that. They are by definition a group that is easily persuaded, heavily influenced, moody, and secretive.
Watch your kid for rapid weight loss, Binge eating, long periods of time without eating. Keep healthy snacks already cut up and in the fridge. They want quick, fast and easy. This era of “instant gratification” we live in is in fact the world they have been raised in. They don’t have any concept of something not being readily available to them. Today’s tweens can process multiple information sources at once and their attention spans are very short. Keep this in mind when grocery shopping and preparing snacks. Talk to your kids about being healthy and fit. excercise with them or at least encourage that they do. It’s easy for me, I like the outdoors and have played outside with them always! If you don’t, find something that you like (yoga video, stretching, dance videos, stationary bikes, etc) and let your kids see you use them. Teaching kids to eat and be healthy starts with the role models that we display to them.
As I conclude this, I think of all the young girls (and boys) who may not have eaten anything today in a quest to be perfect. I hope just one of them reads this post! I hope that they realize there’s a better way, resources are available to help them, and I hope they know they are beautiful just the way they are!!