My fifteen-year-old daughter showed me a TikTok video that a young girl posted and it was horrifying. The girl who appeared to be around ten years old was in a bathing suit, holding her stomach calling herself a beached whale. I broke down in tears and my daughter was right there with me. My heart ached for her and what she was going through.
I knew that feeling very well. I was that girl. When I was nine years old a boy told me that I was fat. From that point, I would look at myself in the mirror and see what that little girl did. I was not overweight, but what I saw was a completely different person than what others saw. I struggled with anorexia for two years. My parents would beg me to eat, but I wouldn’t, I couldn’t. I would hide in my room and do sit-ups and exercise excessively. Eventually, I received the therapy I needed. We learned that the reason I developed an eating disorder was not that the boy told me I was fat. I had a lot of trauma early on in my life with losing my mom and other family members. And that is the case with many people who develop anorexia or bulimia. I still struggle with body image and the older I get the harder I am on myself.
As a mom of three girls, I worry that this could happen to them. I don’t ever want them to be that little girl on TikTok in the bathing suit or me who was sneaking sit-ups in her room.
But unfortunately, the number of teenagers and young women with eating disorders continues to rise. 40% of teenage girls have eating disorders. And 91% of female teenagers have attempted to control their weight through dieting, according to the Walden Center for Education and Research. Global eating disorder prevalence increased from 3.4% to 7.8% between 2000 and 2018. (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2019)
Ashlie Gionfriddo, Licensed Professional Counselor, MS, LPC says she has seen an increase in patients, and the age ranges vary. Mainly teenagers and women between 20-30 years old.
Ashlie says that one of the problems we are dealing with is diet culture. We are overwhelmed with the words diet, weight loss, and fat loss. We are trained to think food is either good or bad.
“So many people think that diets are the answer. No, diets are harmful. We have stop labeling food as good or bad,” she said.
Ashlie says we need to pay attention to signs in our children at any age.
Eating Disorder Signs
- Sudden or rapid weight loss
- Change in eating habits. Are they suddenly vegan or cutting out carbs?
- Compulsive exercising
- Making comments about their body
If we see these signs Ashlie says that the first step is for parents to bring their children to the pediatrician for a medical assessment. The doctor may decide to refer to a therapist. Parents can also seek out an eating disorder specialist by going to Psychology Today.
There can be multiple causes for an eating disorder including grief, loss, trauma, divorce, abuse, and changing schools. Ashlie says social media doesn’t help either as we are overwhelmed by diet culture, filters, and looking perfect.
So what can parents do to try to prevent our children from getting to this place? Ashie recommends doing check in’s with our kids and discuss what their thoughts are about diet and body image.
“We have to think about how we define self-worth, said Ashlie. “You want to help them redefine self-worth outside their appearance. We should emphasize how they are doing in school and their extracurricular activities,” said Ashlie.
Ashlie says that it’s important for parents to be careful about what we say about our bodies. I am guilty of this. I have looked in the mirror and openly criticized my skin, my wrinkles, my weight, and my hair. I thought that my girls didn’t hear, but they were listening. And that scares me. I pray that won’t think that way about themselves. Since then, I have been aware of what I say and how I talk about my body and food.
The other important piece of this is how we talk and feel about food. Ashlie says that we should not label food as good or bad. When we eat foods we attach ourselves to good or bad. Should I feel good or bad about eating a certain food item? If we deem food as bad and we eat it then we think that we are bad. Ashlie says we have to stop this way of thinking.
As much as I wish the media and society would not focus as much on food, our bodies, and perfection, I don’t think that it’s going away. It’s our job as parents to get in front of this and have open conversations with our kids. It’s certainly not easy and I worry every day, especially as I see more videos like that little girl on TikTok who thinks she is fat. What I would say to her is that she is beautiful inside and out. I think that we all need to hear that.