Through a random stream of clicks and links last week, I somehow stumbled upon a young girl’s Instagram account that was wholly dedicated to her battle with depression, anorexia, and the resulting self-harm, mostly in the form of “cutting,” that resulted from it. By clicking on hashtags, I was horrified to discover a whole “community” of young teenagers, mostly girls but many boys as well, who were literally dying to be thin and taking any means necessary including anorexia and bulimia to get there. And when their thoughts about weight and dizzying teenage social status became all-consuming, they resorted to release those feelings of depression by cutting their wrists, forearms, and thighs. Thousands of images pop up under hashtags like #ana and #sue, showing forearms and legs dripping blood out of fresh wounds with accompanying captions that admit to feelings of worthlessness and ugliness.
For hours afterwards, I sat in a daze of shock and horror, completely tuning out the movie playing on the TV screen and instead thinking of these thousands of girls and boys so consumed with an obsession to be thin or feelings of depression that they were literally starving themselves, trading “likes” for skipped meals and boasting about how few calories they had limited themselves to that day. Truth be told, I haven’t stopped thinking about them. I felt naïve for not knowing such a thing existed online, and after doing some research, it seems the issue is so vast, Instagram has written detailed community guidelines for self-harm and the community is garnering more and more attention and resources for support.
After getting over the initial shock of my discovery, I immediately jumped to thoughts which are fairly common as a mother, all centered around how can I keep my own kids safe from such a thing. How the hell can I keep thoughts of self-harm and suicide from ever invading their heads? How do I keep my almost preteen daughter from feeling ugly and fat because she’s not a size 0? How do I keep my young sons from feeling worthless because they’re not the star athlete? How do I keep my kids’ relationships with food and body image healthy, especially considering my work is so tied up in health and wellness? After all, my whole social media platform is based off of me living a healthier life through diet and exercise, and I’ve seen how easily my words can affect their thoughts of food and health. Just the other day, I had to make the distinction for my son about the gluten-free diet I am currently following, as he naturally assumed that if I was doing it, it must somehow be healthier. Therefore, when I made gluten-free chicken nuggets, he automatically asked if they were healthier. I had to clarify for him that gluten doesn’t make something healthy or unhealthy, it just means that some people, like me, don’t feel so great if they eat it, and by making our homemade chicken nuggets gluten-free, it meant that I could enjoy them too. They watch and pay attention to everything we do, and if we do it, they almost always automatically assume it’s good or better. I have to continually remind myself, especially with food, to be a consistent, thoughtful, and patient role model. If I am changing our eating habits for one reason or another, I need to be open in explaining why I’m doing that instead of keeping them in the dark to reach their own, often untrue, conclusions.
The conclusion I’ve come to is this: no matter how much I’d like to, I can’t keep my kids wrapped in a bubble and out of harm’s way from the destructive images and messages they may get outside the home, in social media, and through traditional print media. But what I can take control of and keep safe are the messages and teachings they receive here at home. Positive messages of validation and grace, and teachings of nutrition, balanced eating, and healthy relationships with food and exercise. There are virtually a thousand internal and external factors, including our own individual DNA, which will determine whether a child is predisposed to develop thoughts of depression, how well they handle the tough social stigma that goes along with being a preteen and teen, and how their self-confidence and worth develops as they mature. I do not naïvely assume that if I follow the right set of rules and say and do the right things, I’ll keep my kids safe through some of the “toughest” years of their life, but I have learned that through my words and actions, I can give them a fighting chance. Here are a few of the rules I’m doing my best to follow as my kids, especially my almost 10-year-old daughter, develop and mature over the next few years.
1. Love my body and focus on its strength and stamina.
I think there’s a fine line between ignoring all talk about body image, in fear that we’ll veer into the treacherous territory, and overemphasizing discussions, both good and bad, about our bodies. Instead, I’ll focus on silently showing love for my body by taking good care of it through regular exercise including yoga and running, and steering clear of negative talk about “baby bumps” and all other points of contention us women tend to have with our flaws.
2. Limit talk about dieting only to how it can enhance our individual health and not how it can help us achieve a certain goal weight or physique.
Going gluten-free is a terrific opportunity to show how one size does not fit all for diets and that certain foods shouldn’t be blanket-labeled across the board as “bad.” Gluten for now, is not good for me and my autoimmune disease, but it doesn’t mean the rest of my family shouldn’t enjoy it.
3. Teach my kids about nutrition so they can make choices for themselves.
Despite a mountain of growing research and evidence that the way Americans eat and subsequently diet is slowly killing us, we continue to falsely believe the wrong things about diet and nutrition, like shrinking our portion and calorie sizes to dangerous levels is the only way to lose weight. These myths are not only wrong, but will lead to setback and frustration, exacerbating negative feelings towards food and exercise. By learning as much as I can about nutrition and exercise through my own research and experience, I can pass that knowledge onto my children so they can hopefully grow up with this knowledge, rather than trying to learn it when they’re in their thirties.
4. Model good eating and exercise habits.
This includes eating healthy the majority of the time, but also relishing in the occasional burger from In-N-Out. Maintaining a consistent exercise routine is also great, but showing restraint by knowing my limits, not taking routines to the extreme, and taking appropriate breaks for rest and recovery is even more important. Essentially, I want to be a model for balance.
5. Keep my mouth shut when it comes to making comments on others’ weight and appearance.
I’ve always been hyper-sensitive about the word fat and have always been really careful about not calling others fat, pudgy, or heavy. But I have noticed myself using more “politically correct” terms like overweight, and I too freely comment on a person’s thinness. The truth is, unless it’s relevant to the conversation because of health concerns, there’s really no need to use a person’s size in a conversation, because then my kids will start noticing weight and think that others are always noticing their body shape and size. Eventually of course, they’ll understand and recognize what these ideas and concepts mean, but if I can keep it out of their thoughts and conversations until they’re older and more mature, I can’t help but think they’ll be better off for it.
6. Keep them active and limit a sedentary lifestyle.
Instead of promoting exercise to maintain thinness or limit TV use so they don’t become a “couch potato,” promote sports and exercise as a way to literally change their mood by changing their body chemistry and keep them feeling good and strong.
7. Love them.
It is such a simple concept, I know, and we all think we love our kids enough, at least I do. But how many opportunities a day do I miss to simply express my love and support for them with a hug or a reassuring glance or by saying something positive when I could just as easily say something negative? I can’t even begin to understand how complex it is to raise teenagers, and I’m scared for the day when we get there, but I was once a teenager, and I know what worked and what didn’t work when my parents were trying to raise me. I remember when I felt my worst and when I felt my best, and what words and actions, on their part, kept me uplifted and moving forward when I could have easily crumbled into self-despair. In the end, it was all about how they showed me love, and so no matter how I express it, I just need to remember that it always comes back to love and making sure they know they have unconditional love and support from me and their father.
If you have older children, especially daughters, how have you tried to keep their thoughts of body image and their relationship with food healthy and balanced?
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