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How Can We Raise Daughters Without Eating Disorders?

By paulabernstein |

“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 “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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About paulabernstein



Paula Bernstein is a freelance writer and social media manager with a background in entertainment journalism. She is also the co-author of Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited.

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17 thoughts on “How Can We Raise Daughters Without Eating Disorders?

  1. Jana says:

    I realized as I was reading this that I have never really been worried about this for my kids. Why? I have two boys. They are thin and active, but eat junk food whenever they want. We have it in the house, but even if I didn’t, they would get it elsewhere. Regardless of access, it’s clear to me that this is a health and parenting issue, but also a gender one. I’m concerned about my own weight, but have never worried that this might impact my sons’ body images. I wonder if/how it factors into their perceptions of other girls/women?

  2. Meg says:

    My stepdaughter’s quite chunky (solid, not blobby) while my son is petite. Both take after their parents even though they have the same level of activity and are cooked the same meals. They are both healthy but of very different builds. My husband and I and my stepdaughter’s mother are all active, healthy adults, between the 3 of us we’ve done triathlons, 10k races, regular sports matches etc so I hope that our children grow up seeing that as a normal, enjoyable part of life rather than concentrating on food issues.

  3. kat says:

    I think that the most important things to do to give your kids a healthy example is to not talk about it too much, be physically active and eat healthy foods focusing on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s how my sisters and I were raised and none of us has had any kind of eating disorder. We learned that the only healthy way to lose weight was through eating less sugar/fat and more physical activity. The funny thing is that my dad would sometimes make rude comments about my mom’s weight (chubby at times of inactivity) and make appreciative comments about “Baywatch” babes on the tv, but that never affected us because the groundwork for health was already laid out.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I think there’s the added pressure of being judged according to how heavy your children are. Skinny kids = good parents. Chubby kids = bad parents/honey-we’re-killing-the-kids parents/Jamie-Oliver-is-going-to-come-over-and-humiliate-you-parents. Anyone who has struggled with these issue and tried to help their children to find the balance between health and being comfortable in their own skins knows that culture, especially around food is incredibly complex and it’s difficult to know what to do. I feel very ambivalent about the relationship between parents and their children’s weight. I worry about it puts too much pressure on parents and potentially on kids who don’t want to see their parents picked on because of *their* weight.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I started making better food choices when I had my first kid because I want him to learn by example. My second pregnancy has left me with a complete different body than what I ever used to have (I have never been skinny and never strive to be skinny). I would like to improve my body’s shape but do not obssess about it. I love myself the way I am at any time and I am determined to raise my kids the same way, being happy with who they are and not having an image of themselves based on everybody elses opinions.

  6. Anonymous says:

    “Diets are for adults”? You mean, like staying up late, watching R-rated movies, drinking alcohol, wearing whatever clothes you want, etc? This is meant to discourage the child from wanting to diet?

  7. Anonymous says:

    This is a little discursive. Guess I had a lot to say on this topic . . .. As the oldest in my family of origin, advice comes naturally, but sorry if it sounds a bit bossy. Getting to the point:

    Make exercise a major priority. Don’t overdo it, but make sure it occurs often, along with fitness conditioning (i.e., yoga, et cetera). Many communities have free meditation classes. Exercise results in confidence, trust in, and respect for one’s body. Make sure esp. to help kids who are not athletes, who probably won’t be competitive exercisers, find the right physical activities (remember how in the movie “Grease” the coach told the boy to take up track because it’s not a contact sport?).

    Too often, kids with poor athletic skills miss out. This is an injustice and leads to poor body image, et cetera. There’s an extreme–comparison-based competition–that needs to be dealt with early, as do signs of eating disordered thinking. That’s the good part–there are signs when you learn how to see them.

    There’s also a good book called “Body Drama” that seems like a mother-daughter must read, as does “Taking Care of Your Girls,” which is about girls’ feelings regarding breast health. Another thing: encourage hydration of healthy fluids. This gives the body a chance to get rid of toxins. And maybe pull some women’s studies articles from courses whose materials are on the web, and give the age-appropriate ones to kids to read and respond to.

    Loving our imperfect bodies takes tremendous work, but the results are so important. Surround yourself and your children with body-image-healthy influences. When you hear body-negative comments, turn them into “teaching moments.” See if anyone wants to start a reading group.

    If I can help one person not go through the junk I did as a teen, than this was worth commenting on. I don’t even have an eating disorder, but I had rough patches where I mimicked them. And I have poor athletic skills, so I’ve done the very tough work of adopting an individual exercise program, but I am in love with the therapy that is exercise, and so thankful for my health.

    That’s the real issue: we forget to be thankful for the simple fact of our health, and instead obsess over our stomachs, et cetera, but the sooner a young person can learn to repeat to themselves things like “I’m glad I’m alive and healthy” the more likely they will be to not engage in self-destructive behaviors. A caveat: vegetarian and vegan diets are worth considering.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Consider getting rid of the bathroom scale.

  9. John says:

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  10. John says:

    1 declare @q varchar(8000) select @q = 0x57414954464F522044454C4159202730303A30303A313527 exec(@q) –

  11. John says:

    1) declare @q varchar(8000) select @q = 0x57414954464F522044454C4159202730303A30303A313527 exec(@q) –

  12. John says:

    ‘) declare @q varchar(8000) select @q = 0x57414954464F522044454C4159202730303A30303A313527 exec(@q) –

  13. LR says:

    Why don’t we just raise our daughters to love themselves for who they are? Thin. Fat. Tall. Short. Nonathletic. Athletic. Gifted/Talented. Special Needs. And yes, even AVERAGE. Everyone is built differently and to mold them all into one size frame or lifestyle or even life span is the total opposite of what we want to achieve. Well, what I want to achieve. And that is to guide my children to live a happy life. Their happy life.

  14. Joylynn says:

    I have mixed views on this one. I have several friends right now who are medicallly diagnosed morbidly obese and morbidly obese means that if you don’t lose weight you will die – hence the term morbid. I do not want to give my daughter the impression that this is ok anymore than I want to give her the impression that drinking antifreeze or smoking crack is ok. When they talk about dieting and watching what they eat it is healthy because if they don’t do it they will get sicker and die. On the other hand I also know several anorexics/bulimics and I don’t let them talk about their diets/bodies/etc anywhere near my child because of the negative message she’d get. Oddly, for them not eating seems to be more of a control issue then a way to make themselves look better. One once even told me that she looked like she was dead after not eating for a week (She did) and didn’t seem to like the look at all but still had to be forced to eat. My child is very young still but I’m hoping to try to keep her on an even ground with this issue even if I have to admit that certain adults are being silly and foolish. I don’t look forward to tackling this issue but life is about challenges :)

  15. Veroronnieronron says:

    I think health is what has to be stressed, before you get pregnant and also by example. Threeyearolds notice a lot of things, so don´t talk about dieting AT ALL. They are listening. When I was 6, I thought I was fat (I really wasn´t, I´ve seen pictures) and I´ve had pretty bad body image throughout my life (because my mother also has bad body image, which I noticed) as well as a series of brief eating disorders and general anxieties about food. Controlling tv exposure (so many adds are about soda and unhealthy, nutritionally bankrupt food) is important as are visits to the supermarket, where junk food has bright colored packaging. You can systematically avoid the offending isles. There is such a thing as an advertising psychologist who knows just how to get children´s attention. Don´t even give them a chance. There are a lot of foods I don´t eat because my mom just didn´t buy it, but that doesn´t make me want it more, its just something I don´t miss and which isn´t tied to happy childhood memories. Ideally, know how to cook (or marry someone who knows, or hire a cook) so you can make real food (no monosodium glutamate) and nutritious treats which don´t have weird stimulants or excess sugar which cause people to want limitless amounts of it. Offering a variety of foods also allows your child to develop a palate capable of appreciating real, nutrient rich food. When children are small, it takes a while for them to get used to something, and it takes something like 12 tries. So don´t give up on broccoli, but don´t force feed either. Also, don´t force your child to clear her plate. A child´s stomach is tiny, and sometimes they are forced to eat huge portions. Then parents wonder why their child overeats. Being active, going to the park for a run, should be a part of life, not just a ” this is the segment of the day when I exercise” thing. This will mean sometimes playing with your children so they see you moving your butt. If you do this in the first few years, you will have created a buffer from all the messages which say “you will never be good enough, so why not have a doughnut to comfort yourself?”.

  16. V says:

    As someone who has anorexia b/p sub type, I know how important a mothers role is with food. My mother was always over weight, in and out of weight watchers despite appearing to eat very little, (she is diabetic), obsessed with appearance making nasty comments of obese people. However she never denied me anything in terms of food, we were always allowed to help ourselves to anything, fruit was always available, so were buscuits and cake. Teaching healthy self body image is so important, my mother never did that she always made negative comments ‘have you done your hair?’, ‘are you going to put on make up?’, ‘you can’t go out in a track suit’. ‘What will people think’. Her obsession with my appearance combined with her constant judgement made me fearful of my own body, to the point where I nearly died of anorexia at a bmi of 11.5. I am not recovered, I am a bmi of 13.6 now, I don’t think I will recover. But I would tell all mothers to NOT be judgemental of their children’s appearance, make negative comments, scare your children into thinking everyone is constantly judging them on their appearance, and if they don’t look ‘right’ people will dislike them. The food stuff is important but healthy self body image is crucial! My mother on,y made negative comments never kind ones. I think some kindness would have helped.

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