Raising Body-Positive Kids After a Childhood Eating Disorder
Welcome to swimsuit season! The time of year when many women cringe, complain and attempt to hide their bodies. While (some) companies are making strides toward embracing all types of bodies, my social media feeds are still flooded with tales of moms who are embarrassed about their bodies.
While I believe every woman should feel comfortable and beautiful in what she wears, most of the time the discomfort women feel about their bodies has little to do with the woman underneath the clothes. We worry about what people think, what people will say.
I was 12 years old when I first discovered that eating was a choice. At least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. It has taken me a long time to develop a healthy relationship with my body and with food. I realized that controlling food was a way to control my body and a way to feel like I had control in my life. Now that I am in a different place, both with my physical and mental health, it is important for me to lay the groundwork for my children’s health as well.
I credit my children for helping me embrace body positivity. Not only did growing them, birthing them and breastfeeding them give me a newfound appreciation for the strength and limitations of my body, I want them to feel proud of their own bodies and what they can do. I can’t protect them from what they’ll hear outside our home, but I can lay the foundations so that hopefully what’s inside their hearts speaks the loudest.
Here are the things I teach my children, because there’s so much more to building body positivity than just deciding to love your body.
Use your body
I used to think of my body as an adversary. Now, I visualize myself and my body as a team. I make choices to fuel my body and my body allows me to care for my children. The more I move and use my body, the less focused I am on how it looks and I can concentrate on how it feels. My kids and I use our bodies and enjoy them. We go hiking. We dance. We play. We jump on the bed. We talk about the things our bodies can do and how it feels to do those things. Our bodies need food, sleep and love, and exercise is not something that is done to make our bodies look a certain way.
Food is fuel
Food used to be forbidden. Now that I let myself enjoy food, I have become more aware of how different foods make me feel. Chocolate makes me feel good (endorphins and caffeine), but later makes me feel hangry (sugar crash). If I focus on what I need (energy and a mood pickup), I can choose food to provide that. A handful of roasted garbanzo beans and a round of giggles with my kids fulfills me in a healthy way. As a nursing mom, calories equal supply. If I want to feed my children, I have to feed myself.
In our home, food and eating are part of body autonomy. My children know the phrase, "my body, my choice," and use it often. This extends to their relationship with food. They let me know when they are hungry. They choose from the foods we have available. They let me know when they're finished eating. Some days, they'll want more servings of food. Other days, they may not be as hungry. I listen to them and trust them to take care of their bodies. This in turn teaches them to listen to and trust their bodies. When children are forced to clear their plates, eat foods they don't like or foods are treated as rewards or "forbidden fruit," food becomes something that symbolizes control. Often, children will sneak food, refuse food or binge on food in response.
Express your feelings
When things around me start to feel overwhelming, I want to control. This is where food used to factor in. Now, I focus on healthy things that I can control, most important, my response to my emotions. I can choose my words to identify the emotion. I take deep breaths. I empower myself to make a plan to approach a problem. When my children have big feelings, they are given space to express those feelings, tools to process and manage those feelings and lots of hugs and love. Food can often become a coping mechanism for emotions, often through bingeing or restricting. With emotional resources, food can simply be body fuel.
Fake it 'til you make it
This is crucial. The more I look at my face and body and say, "I look beautiful," the more I start to feel it. Skinny doesn't equal beautiful. Skinny equals skinny. Beautiful is what I make it. Our children learn best by example. If we stand in the mirror and focus on our perceived flaws, our children will learn to search their bodies looking for flaws. If it would break your heart to hear your daughter look in the mirror in a bathing suit and say, “I don’t have the body to pull this off,” then she should never hear you saying it to yourself. Not everyone loves their body in its current state. If you want to teach your children to love their bodies, you must show them how by loving your own.
Practice what you preach
I don't always like my body, but when I focus on the things it has done — carried my children, birthed them, nursed them — it makes it almost impossible not to love my body. It is more important to me to raise body-positive children than to be thin. If you tell your children they’re perfect just the way they are, serve yourself up a dose of that medicine. Look in the mirror and instead of focusing on what you would change, focus on what you like or even love about your body. There’s nothing wrong with having goals for your body. There is a way to talk about those goals in a positive way. "I want to be stronger so I will practice lifting these heavy weights," or "I want to teach my body to run really far, so I will practice running every day until I can run as far as I can."
The National Eating Disorder Association has further resources for developing and modeling positive body image.
If you or someone you know is possibly dealing with an eating disorder, please reach out for help. The National Eating Disorder Association Helpline is available Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET. Contact the Helpline for support, resources and treatment options for yourself or a loved one.