A patient of mine recently shared with me that she had distorted body image thoughts and the start of eating disorder behaviors as early as 5 years old. I believe her.
As the mother of an 8-year-old daughter and 7-year-old boy, I see their body consciousness developing. They start to notice color, scars, marks, lines, blemishes, wrinkles, fat, thin, on themselves, and in others. Thankfully, they are still at a stage where they run around naked, joyfully and shamelessly. But I can feel inside that those days are numbered.
In both my practice and my parenting, I often wonder, "How can we help prevent eating disorders?" It feels like an intimidating and helpless battle against genetics, as well as cultural, societal and media notions of beauty.
I think, first and foremost, we have to start with ourselves as parental role models for our children. We have to believe, fundamentally, that our worth and value are not solely dependent on our physical appearance. We have to focus on our worth growing from a heart centered existence, where our beliefs, values, and actions are aligned.
We have to believe for ourselves, that although our appearance is an important part of who we are, it is not all of who we are.
We are so much more than a number on a scale or a size on a label. We are our hopes, dreams, strengths, weaknesses. We are our compassion, our generosity, our calling. We are the vitality of our heart, lungs, bones, and muscles.
We truly manifest beauty when our spirit is on fire, because we are manifesting all that is meaningful and important to us.
If we believe and act from this place, my hope is that our kids will follow suit. But we also have to help them by giving them skills to resist the peer and societal influences that could easily steer them in a vulnerable direction.
Find your own words, and communicate this message out loud to your children -- boys and girls alike: Your body, heart and mind are unique and beautiful. But you must not take them for granted. You have to treat all three well by making healthy choices.
Let's reflect to them the beauty that we see inside of them. Tell them how we appreciate their kindness. Tell them how creative they are. Tell them how smart they are. Tell them how infectious their laughter is. Tell them that when they eat nutritious food and move their bodies, they will be powerful and strong.
Tell them that they are indeed beautiful, not just because of what they look like on the outside, but because of all that they are on the inside.
Focus on what matters most, and articulate it, out loud to your child. Early and often.
Our children need our help. They need to see us model healthy thoughts, behaviors, and choices. They need our help in building their confidence and sense of self worth.
As a psychiatrist, I know preventing eating disorders is not this simple. Eating disorders are complex, multifactorial diseases that require early identification and a comprehensive treatment approach. When we, or our children, struggle, professional support should be sought.
But I do not want to underestimate the impact that our words and actions can have on our children.
We live in a world where appearances matter, and people do make judgments about others based on what they look like. How we choose to deal with that reality begins within each of our homes. It starts first and foremost by the conversations that we have with ourselves in the mirror. And around the dining table, at bath time, and on the soccer field.
That may or may not be enough to prevent an eating disorder, as the contrary influences are loud and powerful. But we can at least plant the seed. We can start with our own behaviors or attitudes, and we can choose to shine light on all that matters within our children.
It is never too early, and it is never too late.