In listening to a wonderful and informative talk by Operation Survival on eating disorders given by the amazing therapist and eating disorder recovered Temimah Zucker, I was horrified by a statistic that she highlighted. She said that children as young as 6 years old are being treated in residential facilities for eating disorders, 6 years old!!! Not only is that scary, but it is so sad and so devastating that such young children are struggling so mightily with their self-esteem and body image.
In other research I read this week, a survey found that over 80 percent of ten-year-old’s are afraid of being fat, 80% of children who are only 10 years old! This study also noted that between 35 & 57 percent of adolescent girls engage in dangerous dieting behaviors, including fasting, diet pill use, laxative abuse, and more. Clearly something is going on and even more clearly, something must be done to change this.
What can we do? We must find ways to boost our children’s self-esteem as well as their body image from a very young age. We, as mothers, have to model this type of behavior as well, since children learn much more from seeing than they do from hearing. If a mother is constantly talking about how fat she feels or that certain foods are “bad” while others are “good” or if she is constantly checking herself in the mirror or talking about how so and so looks really great as they got so thin, or looks so bad as they put on a lot of weight, etc. then we are reinforcing and encouraging these erroneous beliefs and values. When we only comment and focus on how beautiful or thin people look, we reinforce the value that externals, a person’s physical presentation, are more valuable than their internals, that which is on the inside of a person.
These issues, however, do not come only from mothers. There are many places where our girls internalize the message that thin is good, thin is healthy, thin equates to someone who is hard-working, and that thin is just better overall. This can come from friends, teachers, Rabbis, principals, doctors, nurses, dieticians, even therapists. We must change that mindset. And for this, prevention programs are needed.
One type of successful prevention program is called The Body Project. It is a cognitive dissonance-based program, meaning that physical and body ideals people have been taught to be true are challenged thereby causing discomfort for the person as they begin to realize that their beliefs and actions are in contradiction with one another. In this program, adolescents and young women critique the thin-ideal in a series of verbal, written, and behavioral exercises, ultimately leading to a reduced acceptance of the thin-ideal and an increase in body acceptance.
There are other preventive things we can do as well, learning how to speak with our daughters about their bodies and their insecurities, listening to their concerns, not minimizing how they are feeling, allowing them to have some input into their eating and food decisions as well as educating ourselves around disordered eating and eating disorders can all aid in supporting our daughters and their delicate body-image.
As a community, we need to come together to learn more about what we can do and support one another. If anyone is interested in a support and/or informational group to learn more about what we can do or to have The Body Project instituted in their school, please contact me.
As Helen Keller put it so eloquently, “Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much”. We can help our daughters grow up with more confidence, greater self-esteem, and positive body-image so that they can learn to trust their instincts and like themselves.