Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The girl at the mall

I noticed her right away, as I always do now: 9 or 10 at first glance, with the thin, prepubescent body of a girl who hasn't begun puberty yet. On second glance I could see she was older--something about the curve of her shoulder, the way she carried her purse, the look on her face, more knowing than a 9-year-old, and more weary, too. I could see the shape of her arm bones under the skin, the sharp edge of her collarbone.

She was shopping with her mother; I was shopping with my 12-year-old. They were discussing a dress, the very dress, it happened, that my daughter had her eye on. The mother hung it back on the rack and my daughter picked it up. "Look, Mom, I love this!" she said. Then she looked at the size--size 7--and regretfully put it back.

I asked the other mother, "How old is your daughter?"

The mom smiled and shook her head. "She's 12, but she thinks she can wear a size 7. She swears it fits and I told her I'm not buying it."

I looked at the girl, her strained smile, her impossibly thin waist. I looked at the mother. I made a decision.

"Could I have a word?" I asked.

I told her my daughter had had anorexia, that I saw some of the same signs in her daughter I'd seen in mine. I told her that her daughter looked worryingly thin, that wanting to wear a size 7 when you're 12 could very well reflect the distorted thinking of an eating disorder. I told her I hoped her daughter wasn't sick but that if I were her, I would take her to the doctor right away.

By the time I was done talking the mother was backing up. "OK, thanks," she said, edging away from me, and they were gone.

I can't get the girl at the mall out of my mind. I wonder what her mother will do. I wonder if I did the right thing to speak to her.

What would you have done?


mary said...

You did the right thing Harriet.

While we can't always know for sure what's going on in someone else's life....sometimes it's best to risk bothering someone on the chance they will want more information.
We know how quickly anorexia drops the weight and how important it is to intervene.
Sending a prayer her way! Maybe you were the divine intervention she needed. I bet she's thinking about you too.

Anonymous said...

That woman is probably thinking you're crazy right now. But that's okay.

Because in a few days... maybe even a week or two... that memory is going to start nagging at her, and she's going to start wondering if maybe she shouldn't get her daughter checked out anyway, just in case. You're probably just a nut, but she'll think it's better to be safe than sorry.

And maybe there will be something else going on. But if her doctor is worth the paper his M.D. is printed on, he'll tell her she was right to get her daughter checked out.

You did the right thing.

Anonymous said...

You did what I always wish I could do.

Do you ever have fantasy conversations in your head? That's when I practice confronting a girl throwing up in the bathroom or something along those lines. Because I always want to tell someone, "No one deserves to hurt like this."

&I wanted to agree to what nuckingfutz said. That's going to dance around her mind, whether she'd actively admit to it or not. And, really, it was going to stay in your head whether you said something or not, so at least you said something.

Kate Harding said...

Because in a few days... maybe even a week or two... that memory is going to start nagging at her

Exactly. If she's been in denial, you pierced that. And of course nobody reacts well to having denial pierced in the moment -- but eventually, it sinks in. If her daughter is sick, she needed to hear that.

littlem said...

Respectfully? I think you did the right thing.

I'm hoping daughter overheard you and draws strength to get her own help someday. I can't help but think that daughter is not the only one in that relationship with disordered eating issues.

Anonymous said...

i'm assuming you took her mom's build into account and decided that it wasn't likely to be a genetic predisposition.

it's so hard not to say something, yet the people who know these women well in their lives clearly aren't.

from her reaction, i'm going to guess yours was the first (or among the first) drops in a bucket that has a long way to go in order to spill over, where neither of them will be able to deny the daughter is ill and needs help. but assuming your tone was gentle and respectful - which, from your post, i'm guessing it was - then i agree you had to say something, and that you weren't out of line.

even so, what she does with it is up to her. you can only do so much from the stranger vantage point. shame on her family, though, for ignoring this. how could you watch someone torture herself down to a skeleton, and pretend not to notice?

*shakes head sadly*

Mrs. B said...

I think you did the right thing--you may have voiced what she already knew and just needed confirmation for. I would have done the same thing.

Harriet said...

Well, it's harder than you might think to recognize an eating disorder, especially when you live with someone.

For one thing, teens with anorexia tend to be extremely rational, dependable personalities. They always have a good reason why they're not eating. They reassure you over and over that they're OK. They *seem* OK, for a while. They say they're just eating "healthy," and most of us have been so brainwashed that we think that's a good thing. My daughter's doctor didn't pick up her e.d. until it had gone quite far, even after I specifically asked if we should be worried. We are all trained to think that thinner is better, and we're so used to seeing walking skeletons in the movies, on catwalks, and on TV that it can be surprisingly hard to draw the line between "just thin" and "too thin."

After we realized our daughter had anorexia, several people said they'd been worried about her. I wish they'd said something to us. We were ignorant, not neglectful. It happens in the best of families.

emmy. said...

i started to respond to this.. and my comment because RIDICULOUSLY long.

it is now being transferred to a post.
keep an eye out tonight.

Unknown said...

I hate to be the naysayer, but. . .

I think part of size acceptance is that it really isn't appropriate to make any assumptions about what another persons eating or exercise habits are based on their body. I'm sure you were expressing real concern, and I'm sure you did it in a good, polite, and calm way. Still though, I think the people who assume I never exercise and eat only cookies are also concerned about my health to some extent. I'd be horrified if they came up to me or my friend and asked if I was a compulsive eater, or if I knew that "obesity" "causes" heart disease.

Anonymous said...

Having been both seriously eating disordered and now (naturally) fat, I totally understand CJ's point but respectfully disagree. If you had gone up and said (essentially) "Get that girl to eat a cheeseburger!" that's a different thing than "I see similarities and there might be an illness and I hope not but I would ask you to get it checked out."

No one "wonders" if my current size is an illness - they just assume I eat too much and exercise too little. If someone looked at my fat's distribution and said - hey, the way you're carrying your weight suggests to me you might be like me -- pcos/thyroid/cancerous/blah blah blah -- where any one of those things is a medical condition -- I wouldn't be mad at them. It's the assumption that I haven't managed to glean the "eat less/exercise more", "lifestyle choice" patronization that bothers me, especially from people who've never experienced such an issue.

Having BEEN anorexic, it was indeed a concerned stranger who pierced my denial and put me on the path to saving myself.

Anonymous said...

Are we talking about a juniors size 7 or a kids size 7? I get confused about sizes. All through high school I work between a juniors size 3 and a juniors size 5. I was skinny, but not anorexic looking.

Anonymous said...

Was this a girls size 7, or a juniors size 7? I can remember wearing about a size 7 in seventh grade, but that was in juniors, and I was definitely chubby. I know the sizes are different now, but am I right to assume you meant girls size? Or was it juniors and she was imagining herself a larger size than she actually was?

In any case, if you saw signs other than just the girl's weight (which of course could be congenital or due to some other kind of illness) that she was exhibiting some of the same signs of anorexia as your daughter, you were very courageous to speak up about it. Anorexia nervosa is not "obesity." It is far more immediately dangerous.

Anonymous said...

You're so brave, Harriet, and compassionate.

But it will be up to the mother and I agree with hal's thought that this will take more than one comment. Denial is a long, long river on which people will sail with fortified barges. When I was at the peak of my experience with anorexia, a concerned teacher spoke with my parents. They went into denial, insisted that nothing was wrong, and maintained that denial ever since. I had to work it out on my own.

So bless you for caring so much about your daughter and for all who struggle with EDs.

VickyAnn said...

Good on you for speaking up, you've planted the seed for the mother to look, it's up to her now.

We all now how hard it is for people close to us to realise what is happening, it often takes someone or something on the outside to show them if their daughter, sister, spouse, brother best friend is hurting.

We shouldn't be ashamed to speak up if we're concerned about another person even if we don't know them.


Anonymous said...

CJ, I see where you're coming from, but there is a crucial difference. I don't think any fat person has ever died from their FAT. No death certificate anywhere has "FAT" as the cause of death on it.

But anorexia? Kills. That's a fact, not a blown-out-of-proportion myth.

And yeah, maybe Harriet was wrong. Maybe there's nothing wrong with this girl. But I have to honestly say, if I were in her position, I probably would have done the same thing.

I'd much rather make myself look like an ass than let something like that go. Because what if she's RIGHT?

Harriet said...

Children's 7. Way too small for *my* 12-year-old, who is not fat.

Anonymous said...

ummm...when I was 12 I was a very thin child - was not anorexic, definitely ate well, just moved constantly and was a very late bloomer. At 12, I would have been mortified if someone had pointed it out in such a's just the way I was then.
Not now of course - am an extremely health size 14!

Harriet said...

But would you have been longing to fit into a child's size 7?

Anonymous said...

Harriet, I think you did exactly the right thing. I hope I would have had the courage to do the same.

A few comments have pointed out that when you're dealing with the lives of strangers, you might be way off base - but I think you addressed that in the way you broached the subject. You did it in a tentative, 'I have a theory' way, and you did it only to the mother, not the girl.

Also, don't read too much into the mother's reaction. Even if you were right, your thoughts might not register with her for quite some time - but if you were right, you speaking up will be an important part of the tide that will help her accept their situation and to cope with it.

I salute your bravery, ma'am! You opened yourself up to the possibility of being publicly wrong or of being disliked - two very unpleasant feelings - for the sake of a stranger. Kudos!

The Zaftig Thespian said...

Harriet, that's exactly what I was thinking- it's not so much her thinness as it seems her deep desire to be a smaller size, at so young. There are lots of scrappy, skinny kids...but that desire is worrisome.

You absolutely did the right thing. I've not had experience with an e.d., but I'm working on gently getting others into F.A. By the same means-- a gentle introduction, and let it lie for the time being. Their heads might explode.

I am really, really happy you intervened. I think the bunko 'privacy bubble' shit that society has created is overrated- you may have seriously helped this family.


Rachel said...

Was it so much the size as the dress the girl wanted? Were there larger sizes available that would fit her better?

It's always difficult to approach someone uninvited with talk about eating disorders. There's a woman I work with whom I secretly suspect has an eating disorder. She always talks about food and calories, even though she's very, very thin. I never see her eat lunch; she goes to our company gym at lunchtime. Once someone offered her a cupcake and when she refused it, they pressed the offer. She was near mortified and said it would put her over her calorie allotment for the day.

I wanted to say something so badly to this woman, but I was never sure to how approach her, especially since our relationship is an ongoing one because we work together. She's pregnant now and I can only hope she's eating better for both her and her baby's sake.

This woman might think your crazy; after all, I think many parents are in denial about their child's eating disorder initially. But maybe she will be more highly attuned to and looking for signs of an ED now that you've planted the seed.

Mrs. B said...

You can tell the difference between a "naturally thin" child and an anorexic. I know --I have one. She has always been slender and it runs in the family on her dads side. And Harriet you are right about it happening gradually and the dependable personality--describes her to the "T". We are in active treatment--she is slowly getting better.

Anonymous said...

Hal, not shame on her family... for all you know she could have started a month ago, she could be hiding food.

I've struggled with (a still active) eating disorder for 8 years. Up until Friday evening my mother had no idea. No one had any idea. Not even my therapist... I've been trying to self treat for 8 years.

Anonymous said...

Right now that mother probably thinks you're crazy, and maybe a little rude. She's thinking "how dare she presume to know anything about my daughter". But next week, she might notice when her daughter just pushes the food around and doesn't actually eat it. She might question why her little girl "just isn't hungry" all the time. I do think you did the right thing. It was the right thing. (and I do think that pointing out signs of anorexia to someone are different than telling someone 'your fat is unhealtheeee!' It wasn't just that the girl was skinny, it was that combined with other factors)


Anonymous said...

Dear Harriet - so thoughtful and caring of you. Your heart went out to these people and it’s beautiful that you wanted to help. As Mom's we want to help everyone because we've been there when we didn't see the signs and if we can stop 1 person from this horrible disease then we’ll do anything.

A very wise and beautiful person who is recovering admirably said these words to me when I wanted to help someone without being asked. She said, "You have no idea what's going on in someone else’s life, you can only know your own experiences and your experiences may have nothing to do with what that person needs or wants." Stepping in and offering advice when it isn't asked for is truly meant to be caring and thoughtful, however if someone isn't ready to listen then it can be very overwhelming and intrusive.

This very wise person who said this to me is my daughter who is recovering from anorexia and depression. I want to save the world because I don't want to see another beautiful girl in pain the way my daughter was. But my daughter helps me to put that in perspective by taking care of herself with all the ups and downs that go with that. She helps so many others by her expression of art and writings. It's there for those who want to see it and it heals her to create. The best I can do for her is to allow her to heal and live her life without my interference. I “share” her life with her now instead of living it for her. (it took me years to learn this one and i'm still working on it. :)

We have to help ourselves first and by doing so we help others. When the student is willing to learn, the teacher will appear.

Hugs, Emmy's Mom.

Harriet said...

Thanks for your perspective, Emmy's mom. I think of it as a kind of cost-benefit analysis. The cost of not speaking up versus the risk of speaking up. Since the risk is only to me--i.e., people think I'm a busybody or nutcase--I'm willing to take it.

Just this morning another mom I spoke to out of the blue called to say thank you for saying something. I guess it can go either way.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'm 34 years old 5'7" and can fit in childrens size 10/12 clothing. I also wear two medicalerts because I have retractable epilepsy, hashimoto's, pernicious anemia and chronic pain. If I had a nickel for every time someone made a comment about me having anorexia, then I'd be very rich.

Anonymous said...

BTW, that's supposed to be refractory epilepsy up there, not retractable. Ooops, my bad. I had a "topa-moment". Sorry about that. ;>

Ari J. Brattkus said...

When my d was at her absolute worst (having gone from a very healthy 75 pounds to a bone baring 56)I was desperate for friends and family to AT LEAST NOTICE and say something...only one friend of my mother's said something. After I told people of her ED they would say, "oh yeah I noticed the weight loss." Most people commented on how slim and beautiful she looked...yikes. She was a freekin' skeleton!

H, you did what you felt was right -- if you were wrong, you come across as misdirected busy body. If you were right, you may have saved a life.

Anonymous said...

One of my "otha mothas" (women who helped raise me up) was/is famous for saying
"Is it True? Is it Necessary?" "Is it Kind?".
The three doors your words should be able to pass through before leaving your lips.
You saw something that was concerning, so it passes the first.
You knew that if your concerns were valid, that mom was facing a life-threatinging illness in her child, so it passes the second.
And it sounds as if your delivery was gentle, private, and helpful, so it passes the second.
Even if you were mistaken, you were not out of bounds, and if you were not mistaken, you may have helped that family so much.
Rock on...

Harriet said...

To anonymous (not those who have already posted here):

I am not posting your rude comment. You know why.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what you did.

Both my sister and I were naturally very skinny, and my mother asked our doctors to look into whether we had eating disorders because she was worried. Neither of us had eating disorders, but in retrospect I am glad my mom was worried enough to get it looked in to. If she had been approached in a store, she probably would have said something like "thanks. I was worried too, but they're OK."

It's something I've been wondering about myself recently. As someone who has watched some good friends struggle with anorexia compounded with the horrors of some bad college counseling centers, I wonder if I should say something to my wonderful, smart, and beautiful camper who is a junior in high school. She was hospitalized with Anorexia in her sophomore year of school, and seems to be healthy now, but I don't know. The school she says is her first choice and where she wants to apply is a place that was totally unhelpful with my friend who is still struggling. I want to let her, or her family know how hard my friend had it and how unhelpful the counseling system is, but I don't know if I should say anything. She seems healthy.

brie said...

We don't know if this girl has an ED or not, and really, it's not our business. As a mother, I would NOT have appreciated someone diagnosing my daughter in 30 seconds.

Anonymous said...

It's good that you care about other people but I also wanted to point out that something else could have been going on. You don't know the whole situation. Maybe the girl had cancer or some other problem or maybe she's just a late bloomer who's naturally skinny. When I was a healthy non eating-disordered 12 yr old, I was 5 feet 2 inches and my weight was in the 70s. And yes, I mean POUNDS, not kilos. I kid you not. I was eating totally normally and did NOT have an ED back then.

Ironically, I'm now a "normal" looking young adult who purges my food out the wazoo and I am far from healthy. When I was healthy people were asking if I was anorexic. Now I have an ED and everyone thinks I'm normal. Go figure.

If the girl is naturally skinny it would just be annoying to have random people assume she's anorexic. Or worse, if she had another health problem like cancer, it could be really hurtful and embarrassing.

But despite my criticism, I still think you did the right thing. If you were wrong the worst possible outcome is the mother feeling embarrassed or hurt by someone who doesn't know her situation. Plus, if her kid is suffering from cancer or some other health problem, feeling insulted or hurt by an ignorant lady at the mall is going to be the least of her worries anyway.

BUT, if you were RIGHT, then the consequences of NOT saying anything would have been MUCH worse.

At the same time, I want to emphasize that you can't judge a book by its cover. There are plenty of "normal" looking people who need help too. Who knows? That emaciated looking girl might fill out and get some curves a few years later. And that normal looking girl you see at the mall might drop dead of a heart attack 10 years later from years of forced vomiting and laxative abuse. You just never know...

Anonymous said...

I think you did the right thing. Many years ago, when I was 14, in the grip of anorexia, and terrified but powerless to do anything to stop myself, I was saved by a stranger who lived near us who expressed concern at my appearance to my mother, who hadn't noticed just how thin I was because she saw me every day so the change was less obvious. My mother took me to the doctor the next week and I was referred to an ED specialist. I credit that stranger with saving my life.