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Parenting Guru: When girls feel fat

Julie Weingarden Dubin is a Michigan-based freelance journalist, blogger and author with three rocking kids, a loving husband and a trashed minivan. She covers parenting, health, psychology, relationships and pop culture for national mag...

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.

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.

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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