For most people, eating disorders are mysterious, confusing and frightening disorders. In our society, we are now bombarded with articles and television movies about eating disorders. While the key to prevention is educating the public about how eating disorders develop, these media resources often fuel anxiety and provide little to better understand these mystifying disorders.
So, what does cause eating disorders? Is it the media? Is it someone needing to be “in control?” Is it a “perfectionistic personality?” These are questions I am asked all the time. In truth, any one thing does not cause eating disorders. While an incident may trigger the beginning of an eating disorder (i.e. a diet, or comment about one’s body), they are complex and fueled by multiple factors. The good news is that while eating disorders are becoming increasingly common amongst children, teenagers and adults, many people do not develop eating disorders.
Some common risk factors influencing the development of an eating disorder include people who are perfectionistic and show rigid thinking patterns (“if I do not get 100%, then I have failed”); are highly influenced by other people; have difficulty experiencing and expressing their feelings (say “I’m fine” when they’re not); have experienced emotional, physical or sexual trauma; and who come from dysfunctional families or those where success is strongly judged by external assets (i.e. appearance, achievement). If you recognize some of these elements in yourself or your family, it does not automatically mean your family is at risk. However, it is helpful to examine how these factors have influenced you, and subsequently your children, and how you can make changes to enhance the health of your family.
Here are some measures you can take to help fight eating disorders:
- Look at your own attitudes about weight, appearance and aging. What do you model for your children in terms of self-acceptance? Are you accepting of the fact that people naturally come in various shapes and sizes? For example, if you lined up 10 people who are all 5’6”, would they all have the same shape and weigh the same thing? Of course not! If you have difficulty with this concept and think there’s a “right” way that you, or your child should look based on their sex, age etc., challenge your thinking. Think about what you are teaching your children in terms of accepting themselves.
- Weight Health! Healthy people come in all shapes and sizes! Unfortunately, we are taught in our culture that fat = lazy and unhealthy, while skinny = disciplined and successful. The reality is people are genetically shaped in a certain way and have about as much control over it as their height! Also, we know nothing about how healthy someone is by looking at them. We see people every day, of all sizes, who look “terrific” and are medically unstable. If we all try to be more accepting of size diversity, maybe we won’t try so hard to attain an unrealistic body image.
- Research shows that the most important factor influencing health and longevity is exercise (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23139642). Being active and eating a healthy, moderate diet will allow you to stay at the weight you are meant to be. This does not mean that you should demand your child exercises every day “or else.” If you are concerned about your child’s weight, try to develop fun, family-oriented activities. It increases positive interactions, decreased a sense of shame for your child, and is healthy for everyone!
Especially for the parents of girls, but also of boys, help them remember that what’s important is who they are, not how they look. There’s an old slogan from Eating Disorders Awareness Week in 1994 that goes “Don’t Weight Your Self-Esteem, it’s What’s Inside That Counts.” Emphasize what kind of person they are, what makes them unique, their talents and passions etc. Starting very early and becoming more apparent around junior high, girls, in particular, become all too consumed with their appearance and forget that they are a whole person. Let’s help remind them!