Some of my favorite childhood memories are of holidays spent around vast spreads of food or singing along to “Food, glorious food!” while watching Oliver Twist on television.
But for many children – particularly teenagers – food is a sensitive topic. Research from the US suggests that about 1 percent of all adolescent girls have anorexia and around 4 percent of college-aged women have bulimia.
Eating disorders can be notoriously difficult to detect for both girls and boys (yes, boys too). It seems “normal” for a person to try to try to fit into a prom dress or make a certain weight class in sports. Yet, detection is crucial since eating disorders have the highest fatality rate of any mental health disorder. Here are some signs to look out for:
• Below-average weight
• Excessive comments about their weight or how “fat” they are
• Adherence to dieting even though they’re at a healthy weight
• Vomiting or laxative use
• Over-exercising up to several hours a day
• Obsessing over calories consumed or burned
• Binge eating
Here are some things we can do as parents to raise children with a healthy body image:
• Discourage the use of “fat” and “skinny” as ways to describe people. This can be especially hard in China, but try to take the focus off of weight when referring to others.
• Encourage your children frequently. Let them know that you love and accept them as they are. Convey that this is not limited to weight or appearance, but also grades or being “perfect” or “good” at anything.
• Lead by example. Avoid comments about your own weight or that unnecessarily emphasize weight. Pay attention to the kind of media your children are exposed to. Much of modern media glorifies a certain standard of beauty – one that is unrealistically thin, tall, or muscular. Counteract these messages with affirmation and love, and let them know that beauty goes much deeper than appearance.
• Emphasize your children’s unique points. Maybe they are gifted or talented in some way; celebrate this and praise them often.
If you suspect that your child may have a problem with eating or weight, consult your pediatrician or a trained mental health professional. The best outcomes happen with early intervention, so let’s work together to promote a healthy self-image for the next generation.