Preventing eating disorders

Whitney Ladd Post battled an eating disorder in college and later as a professional rower until she found help. Today, she’s recovered and guides young women struggling with disordered eating and body image concerns through education and advocacy. Whitney shares her insight with SheKnows.

Why are you interested in eating disorders?

Whitney Ladd Post: My passion for this topic comes from my personal struggle with bulimia that began when I went away to college. Bulimia was a terrible way to go through life, and, for me, the disorder persisted for well over a decade. Despite being an athlete, and later in life, a world champion rower, I tried hard to feel OK in general and to feel pretty in my body, but I never did. I always felt like my tightly wrapped exterior was about to unravel. The sense of secrecy and shame compounded over time and took away from my relationships, dreams, ambitions, and daily happiness.

Professionally, I’ve worked as a clinician designing and implementing eating disorder programs, and as an educator and advocate on behalf of eating disorder recovery. I recently co-founded the Eating for Life Alliance, a non-profit focused on providing education to colleges on preventing and treating eating disorders.

The invisible issue

What do parents need to know about girls and eating disorders?

Post: Since 1950 there have been increases in bulimia nervosa of nearly 35 percent during every five-year period. We live in a culture that sets young women up for body dissatisfaction. Our society promotes an impossible physical ideal, and litters the media with advertisements and messages saying that having the perfect body will in some way solve all of our problems.

"Even if it’s uncomfortable discussing eating concerns with your daughter, you need to do it."

Eating disorders are also an “invisible” issue — people can struggle for a long time with an eating disorder and still perform well in their daily lives while being emotionally distressed and physically compromised at the same time. It’s also important to remember that substantial weight change is not the only sign of a problem; not all eating disorders have a dramatic impact on weight. Bulimia and EDNOS (eating disorders not otherwise specified) are disorders that can occur within a normal weight range.

Even if it’s uncomfortable discussing eating concerns with your daughter, you need to do it. The longer the problem goes on, the harder it becomes to treat.

Give girls a boost

What are some things parents should never say to their daughters?

Post: Eighty percent of women in the U.S. are dissatisfied with their appearance and more than 50 percent of girls ages 11-13 think they’re fat. Be careful not to say negative remarks about your own body such as, “I look so fat” or “Everything would be better if I could lose 10 pounds.” Talk about nutritional qualities of food rather than stating the calories or fat content. Don’t be critical of your daughter’s weight or appearance. Make sure that what you say to your daughter reflects how she feels, her friendships, her talents, her challenges — not just how she looks or what she eats.

What can parents do to help boost their daughters’ self-esteem?

Post: Teach your daughter that “fat” is not a feeling. If she says, “I feel fat,” she likely means, “I feel sad, mad or frustrated,” so talk about her deeper feelings. How she perceives herself may not be aligned with how she actually looks. One of the most important strategies a young woman can have is other trusted people in her life to talk to. Encourage her to have an area of her life based on developing a skill like a sport, musical theater or debate club, so she can gain a positive sense of self. Give her permission not to be perfect.

Hey, MoMs:

How do you help your daughters develop a healthy body image? Please share your thoughts and stories in comments below.

Read more on eating disorders

Does your teen have an eating disorder?
Eating disorders amp up with technology

What is disordered eating?


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Comments on "Parenting Guru: When girls feel fat"

Ashley June 11, 2012 | 8:01 AM

This article is great. I have a three month daughter and I've already thought about how I hope to give her the confidence she needs. I struggled with eating disorders as a teenager, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone. It's important to give girls the confidence they need to not feel insecure; and if they do, they need to know they can talk to their mom/dad about what they're going through.

Katy May 23, 2012 | 6:17 PM

Love the statement that "fat is not a feeling." As someone who suffered from bulimia from age 18 to 28, I now have 20 years of recovery. For me, a huge component of my recovery has been building my faith in God. Had I known the Lord in my teenage years, I wonder if I would have turned to fast to food for so-called "comfort." I believe avoiding eating disorders is a combination of practical parenting tips like the ones given here, and helping girls come to know the One who gave them their bodies. Thanks for the article!

Sue May 23, 2012 | 5:58 PM

Very informative article. I'm Pre-worrying about how my three year old daughter will view herself in this age of air-brushing and the opportunity for people to bash each other on Facebook. I can only hope we all learn to appreciate our bodies capabilities ( holy cow, we can make a life!!), and not focus on perceived flaws.

Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt May 21, 2012 | 4:29 AM

Great article - thank you for focusing on this topic! It is so important for parents and teachers to learn about how they can help develop protective factors in children to resist all of the negativity and weight-obsession in the media. Working to build positive body image in kids can have long-lasting benefits to their overall self-esteem, confidence and ability to make positive choices about their bodies. It is SO important to stress health vs. weight. Whitney Post is a wonderful recovery inspiration for others and is also a wonderful speaker!

Kelli May 17, 2012 | 8:03 AM

I agree with Lauren that Whitney does a great job answering how parents can help nurture a healthy body image in their children. When I was struggling with body image towards the end of high school, my mom always made sure to ask me more about my feelings and emotions rather than focusing on my negative comments towards my weight. This helped me to realize a pattern: whenever I felt sad or didn't do as well on something, such as a test, I immediately started saying "I'm so fat" or "I'm not skinny enough". Once I realized I was using weight to try to take control of my happiness I was better able to combat my negative body image. I also love how Whitney mentions that low weight is not the only sign of an eating disorder. I've known plenty of girls who obsessively workout and count calories, but because they are still within a healthy weight range, they don't think they have a problem. A wonderful article that should be shared with not only parents but friends as well!

Lauren May 16, 2012 | 2:51 PM

This interview is very well done, and I feel that Whitney's responses are definitely important to implement in a parent/daughter relationship. I know that my mom has said things to me along the lines of, "I feel fat" or "I need to lose weight," and it has affected my own perception of my body. By having a positive attitude as a parent, you will encourage your children to have one as well. I also like that it was noted that eating disorders are invisible issues because sometimes the signs are not obvious. Eating disorders, no matter if they lead to a drastic change in weight need to be treated very seriously, and I like that this issue is brought up because it is a large misconception among the general population. Overall, a wonderful interview, and wonderful information provided by a strong, inspirational woman!

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