I sat across from my new friend in the skating rink, eyes wide hanging on her every word. I twisted a grease-stained napkin from our pizza between my fingers. I’d just moved to a new school in a new state at the start of middle school, a lethal combination for a 12-year-old girl. I was eventually befriended by this lithe rebel of a chick. She had a laugh like a grandfather clock — garish, deliberate. I wanted her to like me. It felt necessary.
A group of ninth-grade boys were meeting us later that night.
“Come with me,” she said.
We made our way to the bathroom. I followed her into the stall, jabbering away about something inconsequential. She casually pulled a toothbrush from her back pocket and stuck it down her throat. I stood, mouth gaped open like a goldfish.
“Sorry, she slurred, keep talking,” as bits of pepperoni came hurling towards the rust stained toilet.
She was not discomfited or apologetic. When she finished, she finally looked at me. “If you want, I can show you how to do it.”
I wasn’t overly concerned with my weight, but at that moment in time, I was a moldable, gelatinase. I wanted her to like me. I wanted so desperately to belong somewhere again.
“Sure, I guess,” I whispered.
That decision led to a battle with food that would span over a decade. I spent years hiding my offensive habit from friends and family. And when I was outed, I would down play the seriousness of my illness. At one point my parents put me into an outpatient treatment center. There would be months, years even, I would function like a normal, healthy person. But you are never really yourself, not fully. You are never really ever all the way back. The illness, it was always just beneath the surface, ready to be called on at a moment’s notice when I needed it.
Now I sit all these years later with a 12-year-old daughter of my own. It could so easily happen to her. It was something I fell into with little consideration, a decision I made with a shrug of the shoulder.
Fat is not a word that has ever been uttered in our home. I have been extremely careful how I discuss body image, what magazines lie around our home, and I never, ever comment negatively about my body in front of my children. But then again, she is 12-years-old and in middle school. Kids are bombarded on television and in social media with weight-loss ads and short shorts.
And even more alarming, it seems to be happening to children younger and younger. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 42 percent of kids in first through third grades wish they were thinner. For my daughter and many girls her age, much of their security comes from their peer group. In many cases, the girls who get the attention are the thin ones. Not because they are smart or particularly interesting, but because they have a smaller jeans size.
Ironically, my daughter cannot articulate this to me. Her 12-year-old brain recognizes it, surely, but she cannot express why she feels the need to be thinner. In all the years I’ve lived longer than her, I still struggle to do the same.
Disordered eating is not a fad. It’s not an appeal someone makes for attention or a phase someone goes through. It is chronic and pervasive. The latest research states that 40 to 60 percent of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about becoming fat. Let that sink in for a moment. We are allowing our 6-year-olds to comprehend what it means to be “too” something. These are real numbers impacting children who will go on to be adults who will fight constantly to feel comfortable in their own skin.
So how do we help protect our children from outside pressures telling them they have to look a certain way? And even if we succeed, how do we get to the heart of what’s really driving this behavior? To grasp what motivates a child who still believes in Santa Claus to begin starving themselves?
This is an obligation that lies with all of us, regardless of whether or not you have suffered. There is a shared responsibility to do better for the next generation of women. To educate and fund and offer treatment to those who battle this disease.
We need to talk openly about how these illnesses manifest so the millions of girls who suffer in silence do not feel so alone. Because we deserve better.