American culture is very focused on people’s exteriors. Every day, men and women are taught to believe that having perfect abs or being a certain size is equated with happiness, when in fact research tells us something different; happy people feel like they are living a life of value and engaged in activities that are meaningful (Happier, by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar) which, in fact, are not necessarily related to our weight and bodies.
This is National Eating Disorders Awareness week. And it is important to be aware of it. The dangerous medical consequences of eating disorders is very real. Malnutrition and purging (induced vomiting) behaviors often go unnoticed and untreated. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) provides resources and help line information for people who are seeking support and help for either themselves or someone they care about.
Often parents, family, friends and colleagues will notice that someone is too thin or suspect purging after meals, but shame and/or fear keep them from saying things like “ I am worried about you” or “we need to get you help, I know that you have an eating disorder.” I often will tell people that, not unlike substance abuse, eating disorders are best fostered by ignoring the behavior. The best intervention is offering support. In Help Your Child Beat an Eating Disorder by James Locke & Daniel Le Grange (2015) suggest that parents
- Pay attention to their intuition
- Intervene early
- Remember that young people don’t generally grow out of eating disorders
Eating disorders impact women and men of all ages and the devastating impact of goes beyond what we can see. Often times women, men, girls and boys may not show symptoms, but yet be severely affected by their inability to accept their bodies, care for their bodies and enjoy all the things that our healthy bodies are capable of. Their emotional health is compromised. The ability to play and engage with life fully can be taken away if someone is consumed by a battle with their body and food.
In an effort to be part of the solution there are things we can all do as parents, grandparents, teachers, counselors and neighbors. Start by noticing how often you say to someone, “You look like you have lost weight” or “Wow! Have you been dieting?” Then there are girls who are bombarded with, “She is so cute” and “You look so pretty.” This is where we are all at risk of becoming part of the problem. Instead, start noticing and complimenting behaviors out loud when people around you seem joyful, caring, engaged in work or family, or showing acts of kindness and generosity towards others.
Just today, a teacher said my daughter’s eyes were beautiful. She hears this a lot in her life. Reflecting on this, I started thinking that it is the mind behind those eyes that I, as a mother, need to be concerned with. Is she engaged? Is she withdrawn? Is she present? Is she feeling playful or does she need affection? Reminding myself to deepen the noticing and reminding others to do the same. If all of us can do this for those we love and more importantly for ourselves we are on our way to making inroads against eating disorders.
by Sarah Paton, LCSW
Director of Clinical Practices