I developed bulimia when I was 15 years old. Now, 16 years later, it still has me.
I've been in recovery for almost a decade. For me, recovery is a present tense verb. It is an every single day decision. There are triggers everywhere. It's tough to fight an addiction to something you need to have every day. I've had periods of great freedom, weeks and months where food is just something I enjoy, but don't obsess about. Times when I can enjoy the feeling of being full. Lots of times when I really love myself, love my body, and appreciate all it does for me. Then, there are periods of relapse, where I use food like a weapon to numb whatever feelings become overwhelming or need to be avoided -- periods where I feel completely powerless and out of control. I am a fully grown adult, and yet am still learning how to eat, still learning how to love my body, and still learning how to love myself as more than my body. It's tough stuff. Eating disorders are tricky because they look so different on every person that struggles with one.
This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. If you've never taken the time to learn about ALL the different types of eating disorders that exist, then I strongly suggest heading over HERE and giving a looksie. This year the theme of the week is early intervention. As someone who knows just what a tricky bastard an eating disorder really is, I can't emphasize enough how great intervening early is. I would love to go back to my 15-year-old self and say, "Don't start. That way lies a lifetime of madness and pain. Get the help you need NOW." Eating disorders are liars and in the beginning they trick you into feeling like it's a good thing, they seem life-giving at first, giving a false sense of control. It isn't until it's too late that you realize how little control you really have over them and how much they take from you. 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life. This is no small issue and early prevention and intervention is key.
I have a four year old daughter. She's wonderfully made (not to brag) - she's crazy weird, super funny, smart, kind, with this bright red hair and spatter of freckles. She's so wonderful, and as her mama, I hate that she will one day question that this is true. I am very scared she will follow in my footsteps. Since she was born, I've been collecting ideas on how to best set her up with the tools and beliefs she'll need to be healthy --here's what I've learned:
1) Learn to love YOUR body. When I was little, my mom would often say how big and bad her thighs were. Thunderthighs, she called them. I would stare at my legs, hers were naturally much slimmer than mine, and KNEW that meant that my legs must be really terrible. Kids are mirrors and they take everything in. Be intentionally kind to your body - out loud and in your head. Stop negative thoughts in their tracks and say something loving instead. Remind yourself of all the CRAZY AWESOME things your body has done and allows you to do. I say these things LOUDLY, so my daughter hears. Look how strong mommy's legs are. I love how soft my tummy is, it makes a great pillow for you, my dear. Our bodies are good - and we need to remind ourselves of this often. I've stopped covering up in my swimsuit. I've stopped putting on a towel the SECOND I get out of the shower. Friends, I've even stopped un-tagging myself on less-than-flattering pictures on Facebook. This is HUGE. I've stopped trying to HIDE, because I want her to know that I am not ashamed. I don't just want her to accept her body, I want her to love it, so I show her what this looks like.. And here's the magic - even when I'm faking it for her sake, it becomes for my sake and it makes me better.
2) Foster body positivity all the time. How often do you hear people comment on other people's bodies? Let's all agree to stop this. Right now. Even if we're talking about celebrities (who are people too, duh), when our kids overhear us say with glee that someone has gained weight or is too skinny, that teaches them that bodies are good and bad, and that we have a right to an opinion about someone's. Refrain from judging people's bodies - bodies come in all shapes and sizes. That's good. Be careful with magazines - studies show that reading them GREATLY impacts our self-esteem. Snag things that feature diverse women, with diverse bodies and abilities, and that don't rely on Photoshop to make something beautiful. Address EVERY negative comment you hear your kiddo make about themselves and other people...every time. If she says something bad about her tummy, stop her and remind her that it's good and wonderful, and then tell her what it helps her to do.
3) Be super careful how you talk about food (and exercise). In my house growing up there were good foods and bad foods. I loved the "bad" foods, and as I grew I felt more and more guilty when I ate them. I remember once I came home from the gym and grabbed a bite of ice cream. My dad said to me, "You just ruined your workout." It took me YEARS to realize that's not how exercise and eating works. You don't do one to cancel the other out, it'd be madness. We exercise to keep our bodies healthy and strong, so they can carry us on lots of adventures, and we eat to get healthy and strong...and sometimes just because something tastes good. Sure I want my daughter to fill up most on things that will make her strong (I'm looking at you bacon and other delicious fats/protein), but I also want her to eat frickin' cake without guilt. So, I never say something is bad. When we personify foods, we give that food power to make us feel one way or the other about ourselves when we eat it. Instead, we've learned to say this: some things give our body more energy for the things we love to do, like running, climbing, playing, etc. So, we want to fill up most on those. We can, of course, eat other things, like cake, but we want to make sure we don't eat so much of those that there isn't room for things that our body needs even more. Exercise is super important for more energy, to combat depression, to have a healthy heart, a healthy body, for having lots of mobility as we grow...and it should be fun and something we enjoy. I hated exercise for YEARS and am just learning that it can be awesome when you find something you truly enjoy and do not out of duty, but out of loving the way your body moves and feels when you do it. I want my daughter to LOVE to move, but for it to be something that makes her love herself and what her body can do even more, not less.
4) Remember that we are SO MUCH MORE than our body. We are a million more things. When I think about it, my body is super low in the list of things that make me awesome. Not because it's that bad, but because there are so many other more important things that make me special. These things that will continue to make me special as my body ages and changes. Highlight kids' character, the ways they work hard, their special talents and gifts and how they make the world better. This way, when they're 75, and their body looks so different than it did when they were 20, they won't freak out. They'll know they are still good and lovely and awesome.
5) This is the most important one - teach kids how to deal with their emotions, but especially pain. For me, my eating disorder wasn't really about food or being "thin" at all. If that had been all, I could have knocked that out during treatment. For me, and for most people, an eating disorder is a mental health disorder. For me, it was much more about how I wanted to avoid feeling, and specifically feeling pain and anxiety. Teach kids strategies to deal with their emotions in a healthy and constructive way. Teach them to name their feelings and begin to identify WHY they're feeling that way. Help them learn the difference between fear, anxiety, hurt, anger and more. Then, listen, listen, listen to them. Teach them that feelings come and go, that's it's okay to feel any way they feel, and that they should never be ashamed of that. Emotions aren't bad, they're good. They mean we are deeply connecting with life. But, life is hard and brings lots of pain. This is hard to deal with. I'm trying to learn myself and teach my daughter to lean into this, to acknowledge the super hard stuff, to recognize what is beyond our control, to grieve the tough things, but to also celebrate and learn what makes us feel joyful and hopeful too.
What do YOU do to help your kids love their bodies? To love themselves? To be their happiest and healthiest self? We want your best tips, too! Learn more about how we're working to empower girls at girlscancrate.com