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How Do I Protect My Daughter From Eating Disorders?

Catherine Newman is the author of the memoirs Waiting for Birdy and Catastrophic Happiness, as well as the blog Ben and Birdy. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her partner and their son and daughter who have mysteriously become as...

‘Our kids need to understand that loving their bodies is an act of resistance’

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Welcome to Survivor, in which author Catherine Newman tries to answer your questions about adolescents and why they’re like that — and how to love them despite everything.

Have a question for Newman? Send it to her here.

Question:

How do I protect my daughter from the epidemic of eating disorders? She has five friends currently suffering with various types. They're receiving different degrees of intervention and therapeutic support, and we talk about it, but how do I make sure she doesn't fall into the trap?

Answer:

That’s an excellent question. There are landmines all around our kids as they skip and gallop and tiptoe and sob their way to adulthood, with us on the sidelines praying they don’t get blown to smithereens. I’m not actually consulting 17 and 14 today, because one of my first thoughts, counter to almost all of the advice we give here, is not to talk excessively about eating disorders with kids who aren’t aware of them. You are probably thinking that I’m kidding myself — that at 14, my daughter is hyper-aware of eating disorders at her drama-queen-filled performing-arts charter school, but I think it’s something off to the side of her and her sturdy, wholesome friend group there. And as a person who learned everything — not only about eating disorders in the first place, but also about exactly how to cultivate one — from the don’t-have-an-eating-disorder made-for-TV movie Best Little Girl in the World, I take my own sense of this seriously.

We can inadvertently seduce our children in the interest of protecting them. Seventeen, for example, learned to be afraid of the dark from a picture book about why you shouldn’t be afraid of the dark. I watched a single movie and then spent the next year and a half drinking giant pots of jasmine tea for dinner and hiding all the food I wasn’t eating and keeping an elaborate journal detailing my “successes” and shame. If I hadn’t wasted all the time I wasted on girly bullshit — narcissistic boyfriends and bikini bodies and wasting away and apologizing — I’d be Hillary Clinton’s vice president by now.

Anyhoo, back to the eating disorders, which your child is, alas, all too aware of. In lieu of the teenagers, I consulted my brilliant feminist powerhouse of a friend Zevey Steinitz, who is among other things raising a gorgeously confident and strong-bodied daughter. These are some of her thoughts:

Never comment negatively about your own or her body. This one is huge, isn’t it? Because besides the role-modeling, there is also the vibe that comes from a household where people practice self-love. I am working on this I swear. Currently, I am trying to complain only about my wiry beard hairs since, bless them, this is not an issue the kids are in danger of developing. Also, we don’t have a scale in the house. It is worth asking yourself, "What is the message of a scale in the house?" A scale doesn’t actually offer any accurate information about health.

Teach your kid about the miracle of the body on a spiritual level (they come in all shapes and sizes, it is amazing they work at all, we wake up and thank whatever to be alive). We talk a lot in my house about women not being ornamental. These are not pretty objects, they are our bodies, and they’re how we move through the world doing important things: getting smart, protesting injustice, taking care of people. We need them to be strong and healthy so we can do good work.

Eat well and often. Eat together. Love food. This is a big one in my family. We love to eat, and we love to eat together. I mostly keep and serve healthy food at home so the kids can just eat when they’re hungry, and I don’t have to police them or worry that it’s junk. When the kids were younger, I used to encourage them to tune in and figure out if they were hungry or sated, and I think that helped teach them about their body’s cues. Our supersize culture does not, as we know, offer a great deal of encouragement to learn the basics about hunger and satiety. I think it’s also important to remember that these kids are growing. I notice my teenagers go through phases during which they are starving, eating all the time and packing on flesh — and then they grow, like, a foot over the next month. Creating extra human being is high-calorie work.

Watch Killing Us Softly and develop media literacy. Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women is a documentary film about the sexualized, objectifying images of women that pummel us all day, every day. It’s super-eye-opening for young people and can start a beautiful lifelong process of cultivating fire-and-brimstone rage to burn off any remaining traces of shame and self-loathing. Both of my kids understand that women’s drive to be skinny is fueled by, among other things, profit, which is something they are deeply suspicious of. Also, of course, misogyny. It is really empowering for our daughters to understand this — to grasp the fact that loving their bodies is an act of resistance.

Finally, if you see signs of an eating disorder, take them very seriously right away, get therapy, and put the kid on a supervised eating plan before they turn 18. Talk to your pediatrician, get referred to a specialist, and go to nationaleatingdisorders.org for more information.

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