Eating disorders affect men and women, girls and boys, and are being found in younger and younger children. Even though we are constantly bombarded with skinny images supposedly representing a glamorous ideal, there are things we can do -- preventative measures all parents can take -- to keep our children safe.
It's not a "phase"
As a society we need to realize that comments about other people's physical build are forms of prejudice and produce feelings of inadequacy in those not of that shape. We need to be careful we don't place emphasis on being pretty, or handsome, or slim, or tall, or whatever.
Why is it even necessary to comment, "She's pretty?" How do you think other children who are not classified "pretty" would take such an innocent sounding remark? It is these types of things that we need to think about. Even a comment such as, "I can't go swimming until I lose weight -- I look too fat" is a no-no. Even if you truly feel that way, don't say it around your children.
While men grow old naturally, women are made to feel unworthy until they've had their face lifted and their body re-shaped under the surgeon's knife. Our daughters become walking Tupperware containers because a portion of society has decided they are not good enough unless they are a size 40DD. Our sons are taking dangerous steroids in the quest for a muscular form. None of this is natural and in this enlightened day and age should be unacceptable.
So how do we combat this? Well, we start with the family. We all want what's best for our children and loved ones, but we need to be careful that we don't place overdue emphasis on beauty and body shape. Starting with ourselves, we need to carefully examine our attitudes and beliefs and the resultant behaviors we exhibit when we consider weight, body shape, etc. We need to teach our children that all body shapes, large and small, are beautiful and natural, and show no prejudices or preferences for one or the other.
Our children learn from us and copy us
Then we need to educate them about the dangers of trying to achieve thinness through dieting. Teach them healthy eating habits from the start and encourage exercise as a fun and healthy activity. Don't label foods as good or bad, fattening, etc. Rather, teach your children about all things in moderation.
Encourage your children to eat when they are hungry and to stop when they are full. Don't insist they "clean their plate." Offer small servings and let it be known they can have more if they're still hungry. Encourage them to eat their food slowly. Don't let them eat with distractions such as the TV. They should eat their food slowly and deliberately. And never use food as a form of reward or punishment.
Explain to your children about the ways the media, TV and magazines and that they do not represent the truth about the human body. You could even try saying that thin models of a certain height and size are chosen simply because the fashion designers make the clothes they want to show in that parade a certain size and it needs to be able to fit whichever model on the day is going to wear it -- it's a convenience thing, not a "thin is better" thing.
Don't talk about weight issues and diets around your children and never feed them foods that are low in calories unless specifically advised by your family health practitioner for health reasons.
Fathers can help their daughters by boosting their self-esteem and self-image, complimenting them regardless of their size or shape, and pointing out that not everyone likes skinny Barbie types -- everyone likes different things which is why we are all made in so many different varieties! You can liken it to the candy store -- how would they feel walking into a candy store and every single candy was exactly the same type, shape, color and flavor? We appreciate different candies and we need to learn to appreciate different body shapes!
Promote a healthy self-esteem and healthy self-image in your children. Happy children are less prone to fall victim to eating disorders, which can also come about if they are depressed or unhappy.
Signs to look out for with the various common eating disorders:
These binge eating episodes are followed by forcing oneself to vomit up the food again, or use laxatives, go to the other extreme of fasting, or sudden exercise frenzy -- anything to counteract the effect of the calories just consumed.
Provide healthy foods
In fact, why say anything about it? Just change their usual fattening food choices to healthier food choices. Instead of keeping candy bars and biscuits in the cupboard, stock up on fruits.
Instead of saying things like, "you can't eat so much candy because it's fattening", say something like "you shouldn't eat so much candy because the high sugar content is bad for your teeth" -- divert the emphasis away from dieting and weight matters.
Finally, seek professional advice and help if you suspect your children are suffering an eating disorder.