Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why we need to change our attitudes

When my older daughter was ill with anorexia, she went through hell. The rest of the family did too--not the same kind of hell, surely, because after all, we could escape it for an hour or two while she could not. My younger daughter marched through hell along with us. She heard and saw anorexia with all its claws and teeth and terror, and like my husband and me, she came to loathe it.

We've talked quite a bit, she and I, in the years since, about eating disorders, about body image and weight. I've tried to model Health at Every Size for both my daughters. And yet my beautiful, lively, talented younger daughter, Lulu, is convinced that she's fat, and is upset about it.

I've tried reasoning with her: You're not fat; you're going through puberty. Your body needs a little extra flesh on it right now. And even if you were fat, so what? Fat is a descriptive word. We all have fat on our bodies.

And so on. I can practically see my words passing through her like ghosts sailing through a solid wall, making no mark and having no effect. Why should they, when we both know just how viciously society punishes those of us whose bodies are not naturally stick-thin. When the rest of the 8th-grade girls have straight hair and long, lean torsos, and my daughter has hair with a lot of wave and a naturally rounder shape.

The experiences of her sister's illness are now four years behind us. I'm glad they're fading for all of us. But I wish some of what we all saw and learned then could help my younger daughter now. I wish she could remember that there are a lot worse things than being round, that conformity comes with a terrible price, that food is nurturing and sustaining rather than the enemy.

She eats the same way she always has; you better believe I'm watching that closely. I worry, with dread in my heart, when what she thinks is going to inspire her to go on a diet for the first time, and whether she, too, will become anorexic. I worry and I watch and I wait. I wait for the day when I can say to her, "You're beautiful just the way you are," and she will believe it.

I hope I live long enough to see that day.


Anonymous said...

Well, in the unsolicited advice department:

You might want to concentrate on the "fat is not bad" line and let go of the "you're not fat" angle, which (as I remember from my teen years and struggles) only fuels the belief that fat is bad.

I know that's a hard line to get a teen to believe, but it might help not to muddy it with a mixed message. It also helps that it's true. I think that gives it power in the long haul.

Harriet said...

I don't think there's any such thing as unsolicited advice on a blog. :) Thank you for your comments. I agree with them completely. In fact, Kate Harding over at Shapely Prose wrote an essay for my new book, FEED ME!, that's called "You're Not Fat," on much the same subject. So I hear you!

It just makes me terribly sad, really.

mary said...

That she's voicing her perception, and how she sees fat as a negative, may be her way of seeking assurance. With Lulu, her older sister was sick and she may have even more doubts about trusting herself. She may need to hear that she's much safer because if an ED gets even close to her you are kicking it's ass right off the planet and she'll be helping. Show her how strong you are cause you are so much smarter now and that anorexia is weakened by what we know. When we see it for the predictable life wrecking boring way it is we expose it to the light. Of course the assurance part can only go so far. Next we must help them become strong within themselves. Most of us have heard the story of the 2 wolves and which one to feed. I'll see if I can dig it out for you and for Lulu.
I've become convinced over the years that I can talk myself into anything so I better be damn sure it's something I want to believe in. I've tried to convey that message to my daughters, that we get be creative with who we are, with humor and as much self acceptance as I can muster. Daughters are a tough audience but if we say something that speaks to their heart it will stick. To hear that "I love that you are the way you are, not exactly like anyone else but with a little spunk in your spirit that knocks our socks off at times" as I was able to share with my sassy sweet younger daughter, I think she liked it and owned it. She knew it to be true. I wish when I was kid someone told me I was amazing or strong or anything at all. I wish I heard something to grow on!
Harriet, I know you are still worried but you only need to be watchful right now.(save the worrying till you actually need it and hopefully it will never be needed) Finish up grieving for the damage the ED has done. Go ahead and howl, we'll howl back. Then you can help both your daughter's, reclaim their right to lead an ED free life. It can become so much more creative. AND always use music whenever you can, seeking songs with words that lead us towards all our strong places.
Hope today you are way less sad, perhaps a little freer from ED's chains that haunt your memory.

Anonymous said...

I agree that trying to convince "you're not fat" line isn't likely to work because the messages from everywhere else are implying differently.

Also the "fat is not bad" line isn't likely to work because the belief that "fat is bad" is so strongly ingrained in society - not many people even know that that is controversial!

Anyway, have you tried the line of gullibility avoidance? If you accuse someone of being gullible then the usual response is a strong defensive reaction against being thought gullible, and maybe that would work on teenagers? I'm thinking of things like:

You're not taken in by that fat talk, are you? You do realise that they are just trying to convince you that you're fat or the wrong shape or have hair the wrong colour so that they can sell you stuff, like diet products or thigh trimmers or hair products. If companies can manage to get you to hate your body, then you are worth big bucks to them. You're not that gullible, are you?

mary said...

I like the approach SharonC has. A propaganda course on this might be a good way to present the self image topic to our kids in schools.

Harriet said...

I like it too! And Mary, thanks for your sustaining and encouraging words. They remind me that words are powerful--for good as well as for evil. :)

Rachel said...

Parents have an unbelievable influence over their children, but on things like this, they can risk coming off as disingenuous or biased -- you'll love your children and think them beautiful no matter what and kids know this. So, you telling Lulu that she's beautiful as she is might be going in one ear and out the other. After all, you're one person and she has the world telling her that she isn't good enough, pretty enough, thin enough, smart enough... that she isn't enough, period.

Perhaps it would help if you enlist some outside reinforcements. I'd also work your same body positivity on Lulu's friends, for peer pressure can be inescapable sometimes. And do you think Lulu's teacher and school would be up for discussing body acceptance in school? Gurze offers some programs for teachers, complete with videos and discussion guides -- their middle school program is called "Happy, Healthy Shapes." NEDA also offers a 12-week program for high school girls called Go Girls! that promotes positive body image.

Time recently had a story about a group of psychologists from the University of Texas and their Body Project pilot program, which promotes some of what SharonC encouraged. The program, which involves more than 1,000 high school and college students, works by getting girls to understand how they’ve bought into and been sold on the thin ideal. Seven years after its start, the risk of developing eating disorders was reduced 61 percent among participants, and they continued to exhibit positive body-image attitudes as long as three years after completing the program. Sounds like this would be a great program to adopt in Lulu's school.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so eloquent as these others; but it's my belief that what parents say is indeed taken in by the kids even if it's not obvious. It's fun to overhear my own kids telling each other what I've told them and wasn't sure they heard.

I too like Sharon's advice; it makes you a team against the diet talk.

Anonymous said...

I just found your blog via Shapely Prose and I'm very new to body acceptance, so I don't know if it's inappropriate for me to comment on this issue. But I am an ED survivor myself, so I thought I'd offer my advice in the hope that it helps.
Don't tell her she's not fat. That always just confused me, because even though adults apparently didn't find me fat (and I really wasn't), I clearly was the curviest among my friends, which translated to "fat" in my book. Look, I have never seen your daughter's body, but I imagine she really is not fat, probably just an earlier bloomer than most girls and maybe of slightly heavier build, even though I don't think you can really be sure about the definite body type until girls hit their 20s. 12- or 13-year-old bodies are just too different from those same bodies at 20.
I'd tell her that her body is just the way it is supposed to be. Does she get teased by other girls? If so, I'd tell her that those who tease her will use any excuse to make themselves blend in with the crowd and they do that by pointing out what's different in others. Lulu needs to realize that those people are actually pretty weak and are not worth looking up to. That's what I told my younger sister over and over again when I started to recognize "the signs" in her and she says it helped her (she's 21 now).
I'd also focus on the great things her body can do. You guys sound like you're close, so maybe you can include pregnancy and stuff like that, without her getting all embarrassed. If she isn't already, get her into sports. A team sport is great, like soccer. The bigger the team, the better. Cheerleading, on the other hand, probably isn't so great.
The most important thing in my opinion is to NEVER STOP TALKING TO HER. I can't possibly emphasize that enough, because my parents didn't know how to talk to me about it. The silence was horrible. But I'm very sure you're already doing that. As long as you take her concerns seriously, she will continue to talk to you and that will prevent her from developing a full-blown ED.
One more thing, pay attention to what she does after meals. I would usually eat normal portions at meal times and then go to my room and binge on food I had bought earlier. and subsequently, I'd throw up, sometimes even at a friend's house (because their parents were always gone). I don't mean to make you paranoid and I'm sure you know all the tricks, I'm just relating my personal experience here.
Of course, all of this is only based on my experience, but maybe I did help you and Lulu a little bit. Take care and good luck!

Harriet said...

Thank you all for excellent advice.

Anonymous said...

I attended a fifth grade DARE graduation last night, and spent much of it thinking, "If only elementary schools emphasized the warning signs and effects of EDs with the same strength they do alcohol, drugs and violence." Knowing the warning signs might have prevented a lot of us from being blindsided later. So yes, I haven't totally thought it through, but I agree with Mary's sentiment that a "propaganda" course in schools could be a lifesaver.

Also, is it appropriate to ask your older daughter to have a talk with her sister?

Harriet said...

The trouble with "propaganda" campaigns is that they usually do more harm than good.

My older daughter, for instance, did her 6th-grade research project on eating disorders. I foolishly thought that protected her from ever developing one. Instead, I think it was the first trigger.

Wiser minds than I have tried and failed to come up with ways to educated without triggering. I rather thank it's parents, doctors, and school personnel who need educating more than kids. They can actually see the signs, if they're looking and if they understand.

familyfeedingdynamics said...

I love all the comments. Having treated eating disorders, and working in feeding education, I am afraid my daughter (a big pre-schooler who likes to eat but is healthy) will soon hear the messages and have the same concerns. I hope I can be a good example and be strong enough to protect her. But can I? As a former doctor, I will tell you, most in the medical profession have no clue and still push weight loss as the health goal, regardless of possible negative outcomes. I'm working to lecture future doctors and teach them the other side of the story. I fear sending my child to school where she is hearing well-meaning, but damaging health messages. Will I have to pull her out of school on the day the nurse measures BMI? We need a complete cultural shift so that parents aren't the only ones telling our kids they are OK just how they are. Its going to be a long haul...

Harriet said...

Hi familyfeedingdynamics,

I have usually pulled my daughters out of school on BMI/weigh-in day. And I know just what you mean--I've gotten horrible pushback and even threats from medical professionals.

I did a presentation to pediatricians in Madison about treating anorexia, using my daughter's story, and you know, some of them got it (mostly the younger docs) and some of them just didn't. One older, very experienced and competent doc kept saying, "But I have patients who are 14 years old and weigh 200 pounds and have diabetes." And I wanted, WTF does that have to do with anorexia?? But he couldn't separate them.