As a family counselor, I enjoy working with many different issues, but it seemed only natural that I would specialize in the area that I most suffered. And since my first drugs of choice were cookies and ice cream, I see a lot of people who struggle with food and weight. Over the last few decades, I have mostly seen teenagers and adults, with a small sprinkling of really young children. But in the last year or so I have noticed a tragic new trend. It seems to me that as our social media has become more widespread, my clients have been getting younger and younger. Brace yourself here, folks -- I actually have tiny 6-year-old clients who feel "fat!" I see 7-year-old kids who agonize over what to wear in the morning because they "hate the size of their thighs or their arms." And I work with children who refuse to eat carbs or fats. Who among us even knew what carbs or fats were when we were 6 years old? I think it's safe to say that our epidemic of eating disorders is spreading to our children.
We are doing something seriously wrong here when 6-, 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds hate their bodies. I think this is something we can probably all agree on, yes? I mean, it's pretty much accepted that teens struggle with body image. Though why is that supposed to be normal? There are cultures that raise children to appreciate, accept and dare I say, love their bodies! And, unfortunately, I think it's pretty much accepted here that there are good and bad foods. But there are cultures that eat all foods in moderation and don't trip on carbs, fats, gluten, dairy, or how many sets or reps to lift.
I think it's safe to say that more change is in order when young children are feeling "fat," or refusing to wear a bathing suit, or eat certain food groups, or think they need to "work out in order to lose the fat on their thighs." And yes, these are quotation marks here. These are actual statements I have heard from my precious young clients!
So, what can we do about all of this? Well, on my end, I am working on a kid-friendly version of my book so I will keep you posted on that. My co-author and I are knee deep writing a children's book to help kids who feel fat. The fact that we get to write another book together is a joy. The fact that there is a need for it is a tragedy.
On your end, I hope you will do these things:
Work on appreciating the body you have been given. Consider the miracle of your senses and organs instead of focusing on the parts you dislike (or despise). See your body for all it does for you rather than an object to critique and criticize.
Work on legitimizing all food groups. Certainly different foods have varying nutritional value, but a moderate amount of fats or dessert can enhance your day the same way that a sunset or a song can. We don't need sunsets or songs to live but they sure make life sweeter and more satisfying!
Stop all "fat chat." If we want our kids to stop calling themselves "fat," we need to stop first. How about we all refuse to refer to our bodies or the foods we eat as "good" or "bad"?
Work on both exercising and resting in moderation. Find ways to move that you love and then rest without guilt or shame. If you love running, great, but if you are doing it to justify your food intake or your existence, perhaps you want to try some other kind of movement along with an occasional nap! Ask your body how it wants to move and how it wants to rest rather than asking your mind what it thinks your body should do or, instead, giving up in hopelessness and self-hatred.
Learn to fully feel your emotions until they pass. When you express, rather than repress, your feelings, you will not need excess food or dieting to take the edge off or keep yourself numb. There will be nothing to run from (literally or figuratively).
Find safe people to share your pain with and become a safe person for yourself by using compassionate and kind self-talk.
I know this is all easier typed than done. We live in a food-crazed, image-obsessed, fitness-crazy culture. But we have to start somewhere right? If we can't do it for the love of ourselves, perhaps we can do it for the love of our children.
Andrea Wachter is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Northern California. Andrea is co-founder of InnerSolutions Counseling Services and co-author of The Don't Diet, Live-It Workbook. In addition to her specialty in eating disorders, she also has expertise in the areas of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, grief and relationship repair. For more information on her book, her online course or other services, please visit: www.innersolutions.net or write to Andrea directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.