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How Can We Raise Daughters Without Eating Disorders?

“What’s a diet?” my 8-year-old daughter Jesse casually asked the other day while munching on an after-school snack of graham crackers and milk. I shuddered. Had one of her 2nd-grade classmates mentioned dieting? Is my little girl concerned about her weight?

The topic is particularly touchy for me because I had an eating disorder. Beginning from around the time I turned 12, I suffered through years of yo-yo dieting, binging, purging, and compulsive eating until finally, in my 20s, I came to some sort of truce with my body and food. I tossed out my scale and vowed to never diet again. Two kids later, I still can’t stand the sight of my thighs in a bathing suit, but I do my best to shield my daughters from those feelings.

I tried to respond neutrally to Jesse’s question.

“It’s a way of eating,” I said. “If someone goes on a diet, it means they’re paying extra attention to what they’re eating.”

Jesse seemed satisfied with my answer and went back to her crackers, but her question stayed with me for days.

Distorted attitudes about food and body image are so prevalent, they’re pretty much the norm. Nearly every woman I know has suffered from some type of eating disorder, unhealthy eating and exercise patterns, or poor body image. Half of girls between the ages of 10 and 13 see themselves as overweight and 80% of 13-year-olds have tried to lose weight, according to The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders.

Is it just a matter of time before Jesse and her little sister Ruby, 5, begin scrutinizing their figures in the mirror? Is it inevitable that they will start counting calories and develop hang-ups about their thighs, like I did? Sadly, given the statistics, the odds are not in their favor.

Is there anything my husband and I can do to prevent my daughters from following in my footsteps?

According to the experts, I do all the right things: I don’t force the girls to clean their plates. I don’t disparage my appearance in front of them. I model sensible eating and exercise.

Still, I fret about how my tortured legacy with food and my body might be shaping them. And my concern is apparently well-founded. In recent years, researchers have identified a significant genetic factor in eating disorders. Half of the risk of developing an eating disorder during puberty could be attributed to genetics, according to a 2007 study at Michigan State University.

So now in addition to worrying that something I say or do could give my kids a complex, I also feel guilty for passing on my tainted genes.

The irony is that my generation of parents – I’m 41 – was raised with such an acute awareness of eating disorders that sometimes I wonder if we’re overly sensitive to the potential for problems. Kids may sense their parents’ anxiety around the issue, which in turn, create issues. Complicating matters even further, is all the talk of childhood obesity.

“I feel more anxious and concerned about my daughter getting fat than about her developing anorexia or bulimia,” said Terry, 45, who manages a yoga studio in Connecticut and is the mom of a 12-year-old girl.

As a child, Terry was picked on for being overweight and hopes to spare her daughter that pain. “I worry about raising a fat child. It is very hard to be 16. It’s that much harder when you’re fat and 16.”

Parents get conflicting messages about how to approach their kids’ eating. Michelle Obama‘s recently-launched “anti-obesity” campaign urges parents to monitor their children’s diets. Meanwhile, eating disorder experts warn that controlling kids’ food intake can create an array of issues.

“I find it all confusing,” said Jill Smokler, 32, a mother of three in Washington, D.C. who blogs at scarymommy.com. “I tell my six-year-old daughter that you don’t have to be skinny to be healthy, but everywhere you look, you’re bombarded with the message that skinny is healthy.”

Smokler hoarded candy as a kid and still struggles with her weight. Now her daughter, who does not have a weight issue, has begun to hide candy.

“I find wrappers under the bed and smell chocolate on her breath,” said Smokler. “I don’t want to be like my parents and limit junk food so rigidly that it becomes an obsession, but I feel like she needs boundaries.”

Dr. Ariel Trost, a Berkeley-based psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, says that if parents – especially mothers – are unhappy with their shape and size, their daughters will be more likely to be dissatisfied with their own bodies.

A 2000 study published by the American Dietetic Association found that girls as young as five are likely to try dieting simply because Mom has

Trost urges parents to be aware of how casual comments about appearance can influence their kids. Consider the message you’re sending when you praise someone for losing weight or gush about your daughter’s cute little friend.

“If you are going to comment on beauty, try to comment on different body types,” recommends Trost. She also discourages parents from labeling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or using dessert as a reward.

She says by demonizing sweets, children often end up craving them and, ironically, overeating.

“You can’t never have Oreos because, at that point, it becomes like crack,” said Terry, whose 12-year-old daughter has already begun to complain that she’s fat. Terry tries to gently guide her daughter toward healthy food choices.

“I tell her, ‘Diets are for adults, but if you want to start focusing on eating more healthfully, I’d be happy to help you,'” said Terry. “There must be a middle ground between failing to care about good nutrition and exercise and over-teaching and over-worrying about them. On any given day, I feel like I am either worrying too much or not enough.”

Meanwhile, though I try my best to act nonchalant about food, I can feel myself tense up when the girls ask for second helpings of ice cream.

For Jesse and Ruby’s sake, I need to relax around food. I strive to eat a balanced diet and not to stress about the occasional chocolate bar. I ride my bike for fun and do my best to wear clothes that flatter my curves. I know that improving my own attitude about food and my body is the best way to ensure that my daughters will feel good about their bodies, whatever size they are.

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