How to help our kids cultivate more body confidence
As a mother to two children who are recovering from anorexia, I've learned some practical tips for helping kids have a healthier relationship to food and their body.
Note: I don’t often write about my kids’ struggles with eating disorders and instead focus on my own recovery from diets and efforts to improve self-image. I am considering doing more of these posts, so I’d love your feedback. Because this piece was originally over 2,500 words, I am splitting it up. I’ll share more recommendations for helping kids have a healthier relationship with food and body image next week.
Two of my three children are in recovery from anorexia. Collectively as individuals and as a family, this illness has caused years of suffering within our household, at times overshadowing every aspect of our lives and what should have been carefree moments of adolescence. And yet, every day I am grateful because my children made it through the worst of it.
Many of you will never experience the pain and anguish of having a child struggle with an eating disorder. I pray you don’t. But most of your children will battle food and body image issues, especially if they are female and increasingly if they are male.
We know that body-confident children have better physical and mental health, perform better in and out of school, and are more likely to reach their full potential. We parents play a huge role in this. While we can’t shelter our kids from diet culture, we have the power to guide them to embrace their bodies and foster a healthier connection with food. In this journey, our goal is to create a safe haven for them, a refuge from societal pressures dictating how they should look and eat.
Now, some of you may think this is just the way things are—the price we pay for living in a society that prioritizes appearance above all else. Some of you may also think, “As long as my kid isn't fat, that’s all that matters.” This is completely understandable. No parent wants their child to experience unnecessary shame. We've been conditioned to believe fat is a fate worse than death, but eating disorders are more deadly, especially among children.
After opioid overdoses, eating disorders have the second-highest mortality rate among psychiatric illnesses. Anorexia, the most deadly, has a mortality rate 12 times higher than all causes of death in females ages 15 to 24.
As parents, we cannot prevent eating disorders in our children. These are complicated illnesses, and we still don't fully understand what causes them. We do know parents don’t cause their children’s eating disorders, and children don’t cause them, either. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment showed that severe restriction triggers physiological processes that perpetuate negative unintentional eating behaviors.
We also can't shield our children from body image issues. They absorb societal messages about ideal body size early, begin worrying about being fat and start their first diets in elementary school. None of us wants our children to face unnecessary challenges, especially related to appearance, but forcing bodies into unnatural sizes is equally harmful. The key is fostering a healthy relationship with food and promoting body acceptance.
Because of my diet recovery work and my kids' anorexia recovery, food and body image are frequent topics at home. My kids are highly attuned to other people’s eating and body image issues.
Earlier this week, my oldest daughter said to me: "I'm so glad that we're not just doing basic body positivity here and are actually advocating for people of all body sizes, because I’m proof that appearance has no reflection on health.” She went on to explain that in hanging out with a new friend, she noticed him doing a lot of body checking and making negative comments about his appearance. It made her grateful that she no longer has those preoccupations.
Hearing her say that filled me with so much joy—and relief—because I wasn’t the supportive parent for her when she was battling the worst of her eating disorder that I was for my youngest daughter. I've made mistakes in guiding my kids on diet, exercise, and body image due to my own lifelong struggle with appearance. The work I've done for my children has led me to a better path.
Instead of dwelling on past actions, the best thing we can do is to focus on doing better once we know better.
While we can't entirely dismantle diet culture, we can strive to eliminate it. Advocating for our kids and creating a home free from food and body shaming fosters a protective space. Although it doesn't shield them entirely from the outside world, it provides insulation.
Creating a more body positive space for your kids
What follows are some recommendations for easing food and body image issues in and outside of your home based on my experience helping my children recover from anorexia. This is not medical advice or a substitute for treatment. If you have a child you suspect has an eating disorder, please seek a medical evaluation from an eating disorder specialist. Most doctors are not trained to identify or treat eating disorders, so if your family doctor says your child is fine, but your gut says otherwise, seek out a specialist. Here are the tips:
Remove the scales at home
Many of us have a complicated relationship with the scales, and my advice is simple: Spare your child from this experience. While there are instances, such as in the active treatment of an eating disorder, where weighing a child is medically necessary, generally, it does more harm than good. I strongly suggest eliminating the scales from your home. If that's not feasible, make sure to keep them away from your kids. This should not be a part of a daily routine.
Consider blind weigh-ins at the doctor's office
Whether to let your child know their weight is a controversial topic in eating disorder recovery. Every child is different, and you know your child best. While my children were in the grips of their eating disorders, I believed with my whole being that sharing those numbers would have made recovery more difficult. They were not provided their weight during treatment, even during the refeeding process, and my youngest still doesn’t know these numbers. When she visits the doctor’s office, I request that she not be told her weight.
Many doctors' offices now make children stand on the scale backwards anyway, but this is something you can request. I’ve never had a practitioner balk at this.
When my oldest daughter turned 18, I asked her ahead of a doctor’s visit if she wanted to know her weight, and she told me she was ready, so she finally knows her numbers.
You can refuse to be weighed at the doctor’s office, but while your children are growing, this information is helpful. For example, in determining my youngest child’s target weight range for anorexia recovery, having her growth charts was helpful.
Opt out of school weigh-ins
One of the most mortifying moments of my childhood was being weighed at school in fifth grade. My best friend got weighed before I did, and she came to me crying because of how fat she thought she was. After my turn, she asked me my weight. When I told her, she started laughing because I weighed more than she did.
In many states, including my home state of Texas, schools can and do weigh students. Many of those same states allow parents to opt out of school weight checks. You can check where your state stands on this and get resources to help you opt out of weigh-ins at https://berealusa.org/dont-weigh-me-in-school/.
These are my tips for cultivating more body positivity that involve weighing kids. Next week, I’ll share more general tips on how to nurture more body confidence and create a safe space for your kids when it comes to food. Did you find this post helpful? I would love to get your thoughts on whether you’d like to see more posts like this. Also, do you have any tips for creating more body positivity in the home? I’d love to hear them. Leave me a comment or reply directly to this email.