Image courtesy of: chicks57Since 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
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?