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Leah Peterson


Teaching Fearlessness to My Daughter

Posted: 11/14/06 01:50 PM ET

A few weeks ago, I took my sixteen-year-old daughter to what some might think was an inappropriate event. I know her father did, as he repeatedly reminded her the day before we went, and actually on the phone a few hours before, that she was beautiful and healthy and in no way in need of what this event had to offer. Clearly, he didn't understand why I was taking her.

Thin, a documentary by Lauren Greenfield, is a stark, honest and riveting look at eating disorders. The effect they have on the human brain, twisting body image into something toxic, is so pervasive that you almost can't believe it. But then you do believe it, because it's true.

In Thin, we watch four women go through treatment and within the first moments of the film, we find ourselves so invested in their lives that it's impossible not to cry, cheer, fear for them and feel a small bit of hopelessness somewhere along the way. After all, we all want happy endings and the ending for the majority of these women is not exactly that.

When I was twelve, I threw up food on purpose for the first time. It was a dare from a friend who didn't believe that I could do it on command. Well, I showed her. A few years later, at fourteen, it made sense to incorporate it into my routine. I didn't want to get fat. I didn't want to starve myself all the time, so the natural conclusion was to starve sometimes, eat sometimes, and then throw up anything I wish I hadn't eaten. Perfect sense, right?

In the beginning, I had no idea that what I was doing was unhealthy. I didn't know it was a phenomenon sweeping the country. I didn't know that I was killing myself and sinking into a deep pit that would be so hard to claw my way out of. I just knew that no matter how much weight I lost, it was never enough. I never looked the way I thought I should. I never felt any better about myself. And the answer was always to lose more weight. In addition to that, my feeding rituals became about controlling my environment. I controlled so little outside of that arena that what I did with my body and food became paramount to my survival. I was entrenched in a vicious, never ending cycle of trying to feel better using food, or the lack thereof, and feeling ashamed of how I lived.

By the time I was put in treatment, I was just under 100 pounds with a nickel-sized area on my esophagus that was thinned and ready to burst. My five-foot ten-inch frame looked skeletal but when I looked in the mirror, I saw fat and problem areas, not my bones poking out of my shoulders. It's only through looking at photos of me then that now I can see, with the perspective of time and healing, that I was too thin and killing myself.

My daughter does not have an eating disorder. She eats when she is hungry and gets plenty of exercise. She looks in the mirror and uses phrases like "I guess I look pretty good." just as often as she uses "I hate the way that love-handle looks." Which seems to be a pretty healthy body image to me. I have no illusions that she doesn't count calories or fat grams. I know she wishes she was bustier and had thinner thighs. But I don't get a sense from her that she is desperate. She doesn't entertain the idea that killing herself to get thin is the answer. She eats chocolate and ice cream and thinks her feet are the worst part of her body. And so excuse me while I throw a party.

Food and eating eccentricities go with the territory now-a-days. I don't believe there are many teen females, at least in the United States, that have normal eating habits. Not when we are being bombarded with the perfect-looking models that have been photoshopped to within an inch of their lives and no longer hold much resemblance to real, live, human females and the beautiful individual flaws that make them who they are. Not when we are inundated with magazines and commercials that all sing the same message: you should be trying to lose at least 10lbs in the next two weeks and if you aren't, why not, and here is the way you should be eating. But, when those eccentricities turn into disorders, that is when you have a problem.

So, why would I take my daughter to a documentary about women that have eating disorders when she clearly is not in that demographic? Because I want her to understand where I came from. I want her to understand those girls at school that have stepped over the line. I want her to take her health and life seriously. And because life is a series of judgments and comparisons on our part, I want her to see where she is succeeding. My hope is that she gets more confidence realizing that almost all women look in the mirror and see imperfections and that it doesn't take much to step over the line into a place that gets scary and where you lose your footing. I want her to take me seriously when I tell her she is beautiful and that I love her and that she should look in the mirror everyday and tell herself the same things.

That's what I've learned to do.


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