December 22, 2008

Children and Body Image: Uh Oh.

Image courtesy of: chicks57

Since I don't have kids myself, I am sometimes naive about how things have changed since I was a little tyke.

I was gobsmacked to find out, via Sagan of Living Healthy in the Real World, that doctors are discovering that not just adolescents, but children as young as five, are binging and purging.

I hope this is just one of those "get people all riled up" articles, like the reports about little girls taking pole dancing classes. You know, where rare cases are made to seem like a shocking new trend we need to worry about, so that experts can get their names in the paper and we bloggers can all climb up on our soapboxes and scream: "How Terrible!"

Sadly though, it sounds like it's more than a few isolated kids. The researchers are only just starting to look into how prevalent the problem is. But it blew me away that this was even happening in Canada, where I always imagined things were more sane and reasonable than in the United States.

Little Canadian kids are gorging themselves on french fries and doughnuts poutine and timbits and then barfing it back up so they won't be seen as fat?

Holy hell, things are worse than I thought.

Not freaked out yet? Well, another recent study of kids and eating disorders followed kids 9-15 years old and found that more than ten percent of the girls were binging or purging at least weekly. And purging was more common than binging.

Is it just me, or is anyone else shocked by this?

Part of my naivete has to do with my own upbringing. I don't think I even had a "body image" as a kid. Okay, I knew I was short. But it didn't bother me.

I got lots of exercise, because when I was little it was called "playing" and it was fun and there was plenty of time for it. (I went on an extended rant about this, in full turbo-charged Grumpy Old Fart mode, when writing about Elliptical Trainers for kids.)

There was no obesity epidemic yet, and getting fat was a fate that befell an unlucky few. It wasn't on the radar for "normal" kids. As far as I remember, it wasn't until high school that some girls started dieting.

So for me, it seems shocking that children in elementary school are already worried about what their bodies look like enough to have actual eating disorders. But I'm sure some of you who struggled early with your own weight--who grew up in a different climate, or with a genetic propensity to put on pounds easily--are not nearly as shocked.

And I suspect that many of you parents, particularly parents of girls, are saddened but not that surprised. You're in the trenches with your kids and are hip to what they see and hear and read. Accck! I don't know how you grapple with this, and am hoping some of you will share what you've learned in the comments.

So I could go off on another rant about the media images we see constantly of impossibly skinny women, right next to ads for triple-bacon-cheeseburgers and Blizzards and Double-stuffed Oreos. But you guys already know that we live in a profoundly screwed-up culture when it comes to food and fat and fitness and body image. And it's not a surprise that kids soak up all that poison just like we do.

Instead, I want to ask: how do we fight this?

There's a Web MD article on children and body image that has some basic advice for parents (of girls), for what it's worth:

Look for signs of an unhealthy body image:

  • Does your child view herself only in terms of her physical appearance?
  • What language does she use to describe herself and her physical development and attractiveness?
  • Is there excessive dieting?
  • Are there frequent comments about the weight of other girls?
  • Does she worry about sexual attractiveness?
  • Does she suffer depression or low self-esteem?

Help boost a poor body image by:

  • Helping children understand that their bodies will change and grow and that there is not one "ideal" body shape;
  • Watching what they say about their own bodies or other people's bodies;
  • Avoiding stereotypes, prejudices, and words like "ugly" or "fat";
  • Helping children focus on their abilities and personalities rather than physical appearance;
  • Promoting physical activity and exercise;
  • Discouraging children from weighing themselves.

Watch for symptoms of anorexia which may include:

  • Losing lots of weight;
  • Denying feeling hungry;
  • Exercising excessively;
  • Saying that she "feels fat";
  • Withdrawing from social activities;

Or symptoms of bulimia which may include:

  • Making excuses to go to the bathroom immediately after meals;
  • Eating huge amounts of food without weight gain;
  • Using laxatives or diuretics;
  • Withdrawing from social activities.

But How Do You Encourage Healthy Behavior?

So how do you remain sensitive to a kid's body image while still encouraging healthy eating and exercise?

I can't imagine how modern parents manage to balance this. In my day, these weren't such loaded concepts. A parent could say "Go outside and play!" or, "No cookies for dessert until you finish your cauliflower!" There wasn't quite the same danger it would be construed as: "whatever you do, don't get fat or no one will ever love you!"

Some Hope for Eating Disorders: A recent study of eating disorders and psychotherapy showed that a specific, more enhanced version of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be extremely helpful in working with eating disorders. (Though the study was of adults, not kids). In any event, if your child is showing signs of an eating disorder, seeking help seems a much better strategy than pretending it isn't happening.

So what do you parents do to try to keep your kids from hating their bodies while at the same time encouraging healthy habits? What can the rest of us do to help? And was anyone else as shocked as I was to see how early these problems start?


  1. The best thing parents can do is be a good role model.

    My Bigger Girl, age 15, is one of those tall, naturally thin people. (She gets that from her father's side of the family, not mine.) She exercises, eats real food, doesn't like junk, and has desserts only occasionally. All because she and I have talked about these things and she sees me doing them.

    Little Girl, age 10, takes after my side of the family. She has my shape, and will probably battle the bulge her whole life as I have. She is not fat, and is within normal limits on the growth charts. Still, she is in a higher percentile on the weight than on the height chart.

    I encourage her to model me and her sister. She plays outside -- especially at the creek. I serve plenty of real food. She does not ask for desserts and sweets daily because she knows veggies and fruits are healthier. She helps herself from the fruit bowl on the counter or grabs a whole tomato from the fridge when she is hungry between meals.

    Both boys are skinny as rails no matter what they eat. I still encourage them to make wise food choices most of the time for the sake of their future health, and they usually do.

    I often talk to them about how their actions will speak much louder than their words or their looks. I tell them that how they treat people matters more in how others will view them than their looks will. We discuss how to do what is right, not just what is easy.

    It is a constant battle, and I am trying to arm my kids to fight it with knowledge and good habits.


  2. Like you, Crabby, I don't have any kids, so I was also shocked to read about the young children purging! When I was a kid (and actually, to this day) I would do anything NOT to throw up, I hated it so much.

    But there wasn't the societal pressure then to be thin, either. Of course, back then, I was so terribly skinny, I was the brunt of many a joke. My poor mother was constantly being asked if she had stopped feeding me, or if I had worms.... (if they could see me now!)

  3. Crabby,

    Our society is so screwed up with weight and image, that it was brilliantly displayed in an Oscar worthy movie a few years back, "little Miss Sunshine".
    Olive, intrigued by the name and constrained to a $4-dollar-budget, asks for the Waffles a la mode. After ordering, her father, wallowing in the pain of his own failures, tells her that she shouldn't eat the ice-cream portion of her dish because "winners don't get fat." The rest of the family comes to the rescue and tempts by eating the ice cream where she finally gives in and enjoys herself.

    That 1st part of the scene may be taking place across the country as families pass judgment on kids and force their low esteem and lack of respect for their bodies at a very early age.

  4. The world disgusts me no end. It is sad and sick that young girls are obsessed by weight. I can only hope that more girls and women will be seen enjoying a triple-bacon-cheeseburger on commercials so we'll know it's okay again.
    And maybe if we'd stop buying into the nonsense that the camera loves the skeletons we'd get back to some normal healthy weights again.
    I could rant but it would rapidly devolve into rabid barking.

  5. Our crazy culture and omnipresent Fear Of Fat definitely isn't helping kids, but a lot of historically children and teens succumb to eating disorders for less obvious reasons. I didn't know what a diet was when I was eight either, I didn't know what a pefect body was or how to get it, but I knew I wanted to starve myself. It was a separate urge to self-destruct that only became connected to the beauty ideal much, much later.

    Parents play a crucial role in building self-worth, both inside and out. Personally, I think we should take the focus OFF body image (both positive and negative) and concentrate on telling our kids how to be good people, and letting them know they are valued as indiviuals.

    The more time we spend trying to redress the balance in terms of body weight and fitness, the more we encourage our kids to think about these things at all, possibly depriving them of the uptopian state of childhood (as Crabby describes) where you're barely conscious of these things at all. This is time we should instead spend building internal confidence in them that means they have to rely much less on external factors for validation.


    TA x

  6. Great post Crabby! I agree with anon that being a good role model is key for children learning to respect their body. Thanks!

  7. I teach about kids having body images, but I didn't know it went as far as bulemia.

    I've heard 5 year olds talking about getting fat and needing to lose weight - ones that are healthy sized. I think it stems from us and us always talking about being fat and losing weight. Or them not wanting to be like x in their family. Especially with how people treat and talk about 'fat' people. It's terrible! Kids hear what's going on and how people are treated - and what's shocking to me is what they pick up! Young kids judge over weight people as not smart. They have perceptions that overweight people are not intelligent along with not physically active. It really is so sad.

    I don't have kids either, but I can see the body image issues in my nieces and it breaks my heart!

    And, don't even talk to me about how young kids are when they have sex! Middle school should not be the norm!

  8. I agree with TA. I didn't have the same feelings of wanting to starve myself, but when I thought of running away (or whatever), starvation always accompanied the daydream (I was sure that I'd go hungry a lot, because I wouldn't be able to afford food).

    I also would starve myself (and deny being hungry) as a way to prove my independence (because no one could force me to eat).

    My sisters would also ridicule my weight (the earliest I remember a concrete teasing was in 6th grade, but I remember feeling ashamed of my body long before then). And I remember that the first time I "discovered" exercise, (at 14 or 15) my sisters talked openly about my having an eating disorder, because of how quickly my weight dropped (although they said it was better when compared to how "disgusting" I a size 4). My mom actually stepped in and made me stop.

    Advice: Allow your child to feel independent, so that she/he won't feel that the only thing in her/his control is how little she/he can subsist on. And don't ever allow your child's body to be talked about negatively.

    I'm not sure if it would have stopped my E.D. totally, but it would've stopped me from hating my body so much.

  9. Well, seeing as my eating disorder started full-force when I was 12 and I had disordered eating patterns long before that, I can't say that I am terribly surprised by this research. Although I am saddened by it. I think a lot of this stems from the unhealthy body image environment a lot of kids are growing up in now. It's hard when your mom or dad is ED'ed - even if they try to hide it, kids are smart and it still comes through. I think the best way to help kids be healthy is to help their mamas to be healthy:)

  10. I have two girls and the struggle to help them have a positive body image is constantly on my mind. Shortly after my youngest girl started in the 2nd grade she started insulting her older sister with things like 'you're fat' which I had to squash fast and remind her that *even if* her sister was fat, that's not a bad thing and that we all should accept one another just as we are, no matter what shape or size that is.

    I do worry about disordered eating and self esteem and hope that I do everything I can as their mother to give them confidence to feel beautiful in their own skin.

  11. Thanks for the mention Crabby!

    I didn't know anything about body image and eating disorders etc until I was in about grade 9... and even then I was just *aware* that these things existed; I didn't really understand them all that much until a couple years later.

    We have such a problem with extremes! If we could just find that happy medium of a gray area I think we could make real progress... rather than completely depriving ourselves OR letting ourselves eat absolutely anything we want (like fast food 24/7).

  12. Childless Grumpy Old Fart here--and my friends' children have been grown up for years now. Sooo out of the picture. When I was growing up there were "fat kids" but very few of them. We all ran around outside playing about the same, and as far as I could tell we all ate whatever we wanted (or in my case, whatever I wasn't allergic to) and as much as we wanted and never gave it a thought. Some people were fat, that was all. It wasn't a Thing.

    (glythaku? Should I write a glyt haiku? or should I control myself?)
    (but apparently it didn't like my typing. lumpsive is even better.)
    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  13. Excellent post on a difficult and ever-growing problem!

    I agree that setting a good example is a wonderful way to address all issues with our children.

  14. wont hijack with my rant so lets just say I agree.

    it's heartbreaking.

  15. The thought that there was something wrong with me never even crossed my mind until I overheard my step-mother explaining to her friend that I just had "baby fat" and would grow out of it...we were on the beach and I was 12. Until that point, life was good then the scarf and barf started. I was shocked some of this started at 5, that seemed young...but then again isnt 12 just as bad? For the record, I was not fat by any standard but just easily influenced by the waifish girls trotting on the beach who looked nothing like my short athletic frame and the cruel words of someone who was supposed to protect me.

    The family life of those 5 year olds should be severely cross examined, monkey see, monkey do! I consider chiding someone into an eating disorder a form of child abuse.

    Lets not forget Barbie and those stupid Bratz dolls. Little plastic tramps.

  16. Wow, messymimi, great advice. It sounds like you're doing all the right things and your kids are fortunate to have such sensible parenting!

    And I loved Little Miss Sunshine Tom!

    TAx, that's an interesting point about taking the focus off body image all together. And I hadn't realized that for some kids with eating disorders, that the urge to self destruct is a separate issue from the food/eating/body image issue. That's scary!

    And Diana, middle school is when they start having sex now? Oh dear, am I ever out of touch!

    These are all such great comments--as a non parent, and someone who hasn't had to deal with an eating disorder myself, I feel like I'm learning so much!

  17. I've just been commissioned to write a book called Keeping our children out of Food Jail... so sadly I have to say that your article doesn't shock me one little bit. Writing this book has been an absolute eye-opener.

  18. I like your link to Poutine as Mizfit just asked me what this creation was. As for the children binging and purging. It's sad, but true. I work with kids as a coach and I see some instances of it. What's worse. The kids I work with have active and involved parents. Parents that want the best for them and work hard to be a positive part of their lives. :( It's sad, but I can't say I'm surprised. Have you seen BRATZ dolls? They're worse than barbie ever was.

  19. I link the eating disorders with the pressure that parents seem to put on their children these days. Not all parents, and certainly not due to a lack of loving, but for some reason many parents feel impelled to drag their children to things like cheerleading classes -- when the child is four or five years old.
    Speaking as a childless expert, damn it a five year old should be out having fun, not put into competitions. I have spoken.
    Sad but good post, Ms. Crab.

  20. When I was about 7, I heard from the older kids about purging. I wanted to fit in so I tried, but my mother caught me. She made me promise never to do that again, and told me those girls were stupid. I never did it again.

  21. I'm surprised it starts so young! I know that it definitely revs up around middle school, but elementary school was blessedly nice as far as body image was concerned (except for the boys pulling my bra strap when my chest started to fill in). I would've thought that body image issues would go hand in hand with puberty and wanting to be noticed by boys, and 5 is way too young to worry about any of it.

    I never had an ED, though I did eat more than I should have (just not to a clinical extent). I would always get some kind of sugary snack after school, either a candy bar or a bag of cookies or whatever, and I always thought of myself as heavier than I was.

  22. That is so very incredibly depressing news... I don't remember it being much of an issue for me (born in '82). We were outside a lot and I always danced, played tennis,etc. I do remember being 10 out shopping with my parents at the PX and they had me step on a scale. I weighed just over 100 and I could tell they were upset (before growth spurt - i'd grown out not up so i was pudgy). They started cooking more and I ate lots of chicken, rice and vegetables and then I shot up at least 6" and never had a "weight problem" again. In fact, they worried a few years later I was too thin! Point being... I remember being aware not of my weight - but of what others expected of me and how I "should be." I never thought in a million to do something like binge/purge - and it breaks my heart that it's even on these children's radar...

  23. My own mom had her own issues and passed some of those issues on to a few of us (kids). She padlocked food in the cupboard. She didn't know we used screwdrivers to get into the cupboard when she left. Locking up food is pretty freaking strange. She never appeared fat to me but she created food monsters.

  24. I find it is helpful to focus young girls off their weight issues by repeatedly mentioning their poor complexion. They completely forget about their weight then.

  25. As a grandmother who has had weight control issues since pre-school, I focus on healthy snacks and physical activity when I babysit my grandkids.

    Nothing should be called a treat if it has the potential to make them sick in adulthood, or obesse in the near term.

  26. I am a mom of two and it scares the hell out of me. Check out this article -

  27. Studies like this almost make me glad my kids have Autism. At least my 5 year-old isn't bingeing and purging!
    I do remember being 8 years old and talking with my friends about being too fat and wanting to go on a diet. This would be in the late 70's.
    ALL the women in my life were constantly dieting, and everyone kept saying to me "You're not fat yet, but you have to be careful."
    At age 8.
    My food intake was very closely monitored. Surprise, surprise (not!), I developed bulimia and then anorexia. I still struggle with food issues to this day. But I'm working on it. 'Cause I don't want my daughter OR my son to grow up with that!

  28. I don't have kids, and I'm rarely even around children, but I find this really, really disturbing. Just to think that so many kids are putting so much value on what they look like. :(

  29. Diana is right on with her comments. My girls are normal healthy active kids, but I was shocked when several years ago "my sheltered PBS only watching" 4 year old asked if she was too fat. I have always promoted being healthy and maintaining positive self image even though there is such pressures at school and in society in general to be super thin.
    Now that my girls are in middle school,I'm battling all new sets of problems - stuff I dealt with in high school and college. (No 12 year old should have to deal with friends doing drugs or being put on birth control, someone being molested, and/or a friend attempting suicide. And yet, sadly these are all issues we have dealt with just this year.)
    Unfortunately, they are growing up way too fast.
    Thanks for the great post.

  30. It certainly is alarming to see children with such destructive self-perceptions and practices, but at what age is it acceptable to be weight-obsessed? Everyone, use the concern you feel for these children and apply it to the adults you know, as well. Let everyone you know know that the most straightforward path to health is self-acceptance (because no one is encouraged to do good things for herself when she feels she'll be lazy or worthless or undesirable or a bad person if she goes over a certain weight). We all must be examples for children. They need to see us live healthy lives--loving ourselves unconditionally and treating ourselves well accordingly.

  31. I'm not shocked at all. As the mother of four daughters, I tried to teach my kids healthy habits, plus be happy with how they looked. I'm not concerned with name brands, in fact, I made many of the clothes my kids wore. They never seemed to mind. (Although they did like the idea of buying jeans................:)

    I firmly believe parents set the terms of how kids feel about themselves and the habits they develop. Of course, when they start school, other influences come in to play, but still, home is the end of the line, especially with children as young as you're refering to.

    One rule I had in my house was if the kids wanted an "unhealthy" snack, I'd ask them how many fruits or vegetables they had eaten. If the number was less than 4, they didn't get an unhealthy snack until they reached 5 fruits or vegetables. After asking a few times, they stopped asking until they had eaten 5.

    I don't know about other families, but it worked for me............:)

  32. If any of y'all in the US work with girls, or want to help ... check out the BodyWorks program. You can get trained and work with girls and their families to help them make better lifestyle choices regarding nutrition, fitness and health.

    They're in the process of developing one for boys too.

  33. Great post Crabby, and you're right, it's so sad. Believe it or not, I haven't really seen it much even though between my kids and their teammates you'd think it would've come up by now. My youngest is 13. Most of her friends are very athletic and healthy, but no signs of eating disorders, some are a bit thin, some a bit heavier, but none seems to be having issues. Knock wood.

    I do know that we parents and coaches need to be very very careful with what we say to young kids about their bodies. Many times, a kid who is prone to an eating disorder will be triggered by a single comment from a "well meaning adult".

    I think your other readers have been spot on. I agree you should just provide healthy food and healthy activities, don't leave junk food around the house. If they are in a healthy environment they have a much better chance.

  34. My first grader told me one of her classmates won't eat her lunch because she doesn't want to get fat. Knowing the mom, this doesn't surprise me. The mom's not rail thin, she rarely exercises (I can report, since she walks past me to get to Zumba -- when she's there), and she complains about her weight.

    I tell my daughter that what's important is being FIT. Being strong and capable. Making good food choices. My kids see me go to the Club; they often come with me (my son and I go to while away the 90 minutes while my daughter's in dance). We try to be as physically active as possible.

    I think my daughter gets it, even though my body fat and lean body mass are a bit out of proportion in the wrong way. Even though I have a torn ligament in my hip and a SI crest that's less stable than a falling-down-drunk. But she sees me striving to be my best, physically.

    It's the best I can do for her. I hope it's enough.

  35. Shocking concept, yes, but I'm not surprised. I am however glad I have sons. When my guys were in elementary school, I spent a lot of time helping out in the classroom and would be privy to snippets of conversation. Several healthy-looking girls were concerned with their weight and even at such a young age, were cruelly critical of overweight children. Things seem to get worse in that respect as time goes on. There needs to be a way to get kids fit and healthy without the sick compulsion to be thin.

  36. I dont have children nor there are any kids in my life (my fiancee's entire family is three other adults and my only sibling never had kids) but I remembering dabbling in bulimia starting at age 15. I wasn't overweight, but I was "getting there".

    Being African American, the common stereotype is that eating disorders doesn't happen in our community so no one noticed. Even to this day the other person who knows is my partner (and now, you).

    I'm shocked that its happening with such young children now!

  37. Sadly, I'm not surprised. I went to an all-girls school during my freshman year of high school and it was a regular occurrence for girls to take group trips to the bathroom after lunch to purge. (That always seemed insane to me; I never joined.) I think that people are so obsessed with the "ideal" that they don't think about the fact that most of these people with the "perfect" bodies aren't actually healthy. Kids mimic and internalize what their parents do ... and it stays closer to being "skinny" than "healthy." That's just one more thing I'd like to work on with the social work degree I'm in the middle of ...

  38. When I was in high school (which was only a few years ago), the only thing that kept me from being anorexic or suffering from eating disorders was my sports- I have always been an overachiever, and I wanted to be skinny and I wanted to be a great athlete- and I, luckily, chose athlete. Also, I was educated, far beyond what I would have liked at the time, at the effects it has on your body. I hated throwing up with a passion, maybe since I associated it with being sick and bedridden. I once tried to stop eating, but I only lasted 2 days. I don't think the adults really understand the full impact it has on kids. If you were a total b*tch and wanted to insult someone, you called them fat. You called them ugly. The ultimate, undeniable insults.

  39. Great topic and I agree with the points you’ve presented. I personally battled with bulimia for 20 years before I could finally break free of this addiction. From my experience I have seen that information like this can help people with bulimia and those around them to cope better. Please keep up the good work.


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