I’ll be honest – I worry about my sweet girl getting sucked into a world where she’s controlled by an eating disorder. Mothers have a fierce protective instinct to shield their children from harm. It is no wonder then, that the illness that consumed my every thought and decision, had damaging effects on my health, and robbed me of opportunities, would cause anxiety.
A study by the Keep It Real Campaign in 2012 reported that 80% of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet. Another study found that 50% of 3-6-year-olds worry about being fat. People often don’t realize this, however, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric illnesses, as well as a high incidence of suicide. Given these grim statistics, how could I not want to spare her from this disorder; not to mention a world that is oozing with airbrushed images of objectified females.
I have a vivid memory of my daughter sitting on the kitchen counter as a toddler with nothing on but a pair of underwear and her brother’s football helmet. She’s smiling, perfectly content in a world that has yet to bombard her with messages about how she ‘should’ look. Her little tummy is full and round, just as it should be, and she’s unaware that as women we ‘should’ suck our stomachs in (who the hell came up with that idea?). I took a picture of her because I want to remind her that we ALL start out this way — playful, present in the moment, without a single worry about the body that is so miraculously allowing us to move and thrive.
My sweet Sophie is eight. In her eight years, she’s made two comments related to her body that stopped me in my tracks. The first time was in the dressing room at Gap when she realized she no longer wears a clothing size corresponding with her age. At age 8, she wears 10’s or 12’s. She genuinely seemed confused as she looked to me for an explanation.
We stopped. Right then and there, in the middle of the dressing room and had a talk sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor. “Honey, the people that make clothes make up random numbers for what size might work for your age. It’s just a guess; that’s all. And sometimes, those guesses might work for you, but maybe not.” Her little wheels were turning, “Oh, like when people guess that I’m in the fourth grade instead of the second grade.” Relieved, “Yes, just like that.” My message was intended to let her know that her body was not “wrong,” nor had she “done something wrong.”
The other comment came when she realized she was going to be a base, instead of a flyer on her little cheer squad. “Mom, I want to be lighter so I can be a flyer. Were you a flyer when you were a cheerleader?” Internally, I was panicking because my desire to protect her is so strong and, the reality is, weight is one variable when coaches make those decisions.
Taking a deep breath, I said, “Here’s the deal sister, you are one of the oldest girls on your team, not to mention one of the very tallest girls, and that’s how they decide. If you were on a squad with girls that were older than you, you would be a flyer. And yes, I was a flyer because I wasn’t strong enough to be a base. You, on the other hand, are strong, and are likely one of the strongest girls on your squad.” She buckled her seatbelt, smiled, and flexed her guns while saying, “So what are we having for dinner tonight?”
My momma brain is highly emotional. My therapist brain, however, is logical and knows some things for sure:
- There is no one more qualified to know what to do if their daughter developed an eating disorder than someone who has recovered, and who has dedicated their career to helping others recover. I know the warning signs. I know early intervention is key. I’ve got this.
- We talk in our family about diversity, and how special it is that not everyone has the same skin color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or body type. Wouldn’t that be boring if we were all the same?
- We talk about strengths that are completely unrelated to appearance and more values-based. I ask, “Tell me what you did today that made you feel proud of yourself?”
- We also talk about when we felt ashamed, embarrassed or sad. My husband and I model this for them, saying things like, “Ugh, I felt so embarrassed today when I said something dumb in front of my colleagues.” Normalizing and actively expressing emotions, helps them get into the routine of this, so they don’t bury them and find maladaptive ways for coping.
- We don’t label food as “good” or “bad.” If I’m with a group of women, whether my kids are in earshot or not, if diets or body shaming comes up, I either change the subject or walk away. I don’t want them to think this is “normal” conversation. Not cool.
- We don’t go on diets in our house or eat separate meals from our kids. I grew up with a family member who would prepare beautiful meals and then as we all sat down to dig in, she would warm up a frozen Weight Watcher’s meal for herself. What kind of message does that send? Um, really?? So confusing!
- I also know that although my daughter sometimes seems like a mini-me, she’s not an extension of me. She’s her own little independent self. Yes, we share similarities, but we also have very separate stories. By the time I was her age, I had already gone through a significant trauma. Between my personality and environment, I was a prime candidate for developing an eating disorder. We are different in this way.
- Last, and probably most important of all, is that as mothers we desperately want to wrap our children, no matter what their age, in a protective cocoon, but we can’t. Truth be told, we wouldn’t want to either. Aren’t some of our deepest hurts and biggest failings where we learned the most about ourselves, witnessed our strength, and increased our humility?
Rumi says, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” My professional passion and purpose were born out of my pain and suffering. The years I spent in solitude with my eating disorder, and what I learned from my hard-won fight to recover has driven me like a mad woman on a mission to help others. So do I want my child to have an eating disorder, hell no, but I also know I don’t want to dismiss the beauty of what could possibly be the outcome of any of her struggles.
So, to my mommy tribe out there who worry about their babes, let’s grab each other by the hand and join in a shared mission to support each other when we hurt over their hurts. We are all in this together!
Love + Light,
*Note – Please know that I’m not dismissing the risk for males developing eating disorders – I have two beloved son’s and intend to address boys in a future post.
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