Friday, August 03, 2007
Pre-teen body image issues
What would you do if your 8-year-old daughter looked in the mirror and said, "I need to be skinny before school starts"? You might gasp. It's a startling statement coming from a very young mind, but it's not surprising, given our culture's emphasis on being thin. As eye-opening as your little girl's statement might be, your response as a parent, experts say, is very important.

The most critical element of your reaction is perhaps the most difficult to pull off: Be calm. Lynn Grefe, the CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, says don't be punitive, or outraged, when you respond to a child who says something about her - or his - body image. She says it is important to determine where the "skinny" statement is coming from. "Find out what the source is - ask, 'I am curious why you would say that and why you believe that? Are you feeling bad about yourself?" Grefe says that in most cases there is usually something else going on. She suggests asking children about the magazines and TV they see and talking with them about what is real (the people they see on the street) and what might not be (the airbrushed and made-up people of magazines, movies and TV). Grefe also says it is important to expose young children to role models of all different shapes and sizes.

Fathers play a particularly important role when it comes to body image issues among girls. Grefe says fathers are often in denial about identifying eating disorders in their daughters. She says they will dismiss concerns, often raised by their wives, and tell their daughters they look great - only reinforcing what could be very bad, and potentially deadly, habits. Grefe says fathers must help fight society's emphasis on appearances. "Fathers should focus their talk on the inside - what is inside their children." Grefe says telling daughters that they ARE beautiful is better than telling them they look beautiful.

Parents should also be careful about their own body image issues. Casual remarks such as "I feel fat" or questions like "Do I look fat in this?" are heard by young ears and can plant the seeds in young minds. Grefe says young, normal-size children should not be dieting. Period. Those who are should be talking to someone, perhaps a professional, about how they are feeling about themselves. Grefe says children should be taught to be healthy and strong, regardless of their size or body type.

Are body image issues a problem among the pre-teen set? How would you react to your daughter if she said she needed to be skinny?
I believe absolutely that body image issues are a big problem with the pre-teen set, and with everyone else as well. Unfortunately, the magazines, celebrities, and television are mostly screaming "thin! thin! THIN!!" I think the better thing would be to say BE HEALTHY.

As for daughters needing thinking they need to be skinny, I only have sons, but, my seven year old thinks his chubby cheeks "make me look fat." This problem is common among boys as well as girls.

But I personally am the victim of the "you look fat" problem. My own father says to me on a regular basis, "You need to be thin. Men don't like fat women." That is a terrible statement to make, and, I'm thirty-one! My response is that I am very slender and in good shape, I feel just fine about myself and that is all there is to it... but no wonder my mother is always trying to lose five pounds. Plastic surgery is rampant even among very young women.

As well, it is important for everyone to realize that it is who you are that counts. Yes, obesity is a problem. However, if you lose everything you've got such as money, possessions, status- all that is left is who you are, and therefore who you are is much more important than all those things or how you look.
Yes, parents need to be conscious of what comes out of their mouths in front of their kids-- not just to their kids but about themselves! There are so many bad influences (peers and media) and parents need to provide a buffer of sanity. The non-profit Eating Disorders Information Network has a free M.O.D. (Moms of Daughters) Squad Handbook that can be downloadeded at It has principles for raising physically and mentally healthy kids!
Yes, parents should be willing to look at the underlying cause of these statements by pre-teen girls, and try their best to be reassuring and positive. However, overlooking a child's weight problem can be just as detrimental (or more) as raising them around your own body issues.

I grew up with parents who insisted I was "healthy" despite my protests that I was "fat". It's difficult and alarming to hear a seven or eight-year-old say such things, but in flippantly addressing those insecurities as preposterous, they ignored both that I was chubby and that I being teased for it.

Children have more experience with weight-talk than what comes from magazines and television, and, listening to them and getting them to share those experiences is always the best thing you can do as a parent, before it is buried and becomes a private, unmanageable issue.
This is 11 year old just told me she was "fat". By all means no where near that. The difficult thing is I am overweight and dieting. So am I to blame? I did ask why she thought that and she said that her friends are smaller than her. True...they are very petite...the size of my 8 year old. I did try explaining to her that we are all made different. She looked at me like 'whatever'. It really scared me though. she eats healthy (more healthy than I do). Thanks for the website for the MOD Handbook. That will be a great resource.
My granddaughter, Kristen, is now 18. She has always been larger than life. As a kindergartner, people thought she was a 4th grader. Through the years I have had to intervene from "well-meaning" relatives as the relatives attempted to give her the lecture on the beauty of being thin and petite.
Somehow, my daughter (a fabulously wise mother) and I managed to convey the message that beauty comes from within as well as what other people see. I believe and tried to convey to her that first and foremost one must be comfortable with how you look and feel about your own self. I do know that she had some negative feelings about herself and absolutely no one knew her weight or her clothes size. Finally now we can discuss all of this openly within the privacy of our trio.
But as a small child it is a very fine line that cannot be crossed without destroying the child's self-respect for their own self image and somehow we managed to walk the line. I now have a very beautiful (in every way) young woman for a granddaughter. She knows how she looks and who she is, and is wise and knowledgeable beyond her years from growing up BIG.
This is a very important issue in today's world. Not only for young girls, but for boys and the older generation as well. I suffer from an eating disorder and I can not convey how important it is to instill a healthy knowledge of what is important. Growing up in the 80's and 90's it was always on my mind. The stress to fit in, to be perfect, to be thin. Parents need to be there for thier children especailly in today's society and media presenting thin thin thin! It is great that the author submitted ways to deal with children on this topic. The thought of poor body image lies else where. It is a shame that children as young as 8 are caught up in the termoil of having to look like everyone else while they should be worried about who they should sit by at lunch. At the same time with pressure to be thin, there is an epidemic on our hands of obesity as well. Both extremes should be taken into consinderation and evaluated equally. The important thing is to be healthy. And so many times "healthy" is contrued to being fat. It's very important to make sure they understand what may happen as a result of any type of eating disorder. And parents need to be educated in noticing the potential in thier children in developing them.

A great supporter of being healthy. A hero out there that stand out among the rest.. Tyra Banks! Not only a model, but a great role model for our youth and a strong advocater of positive body image. She's saved lives with her movement she's creating. Check out her site for more information. She has help, information on eating disorders, stories, and guidance for parents and children!
Thank you for bringing attention to this incredibly important issue.
I sometimes joke that I can handle the most complex of problems -- my impending graduation from a top-20 university, for instance -- but it's the simple things that never fail to trip me up.
Take eating, for instance. A fairly rudimentary skill, but I have struggled with eating since elementary school. I fell first into binge eating disorder, then anorexia and finally, into bulimia.
Now a college senior, I have made tremendous strides in recovery, largely thanks to the support of my therapist and friends. But despite their help, I still have days when I feel I don't deserve to eat or must punish myself by bingeing and purging some forbidden food.
I have no doubt that my years of semi-starvation and self-induced vomiting (up to eight times a day, at my worst) have wreaked havoc on my body. They certainly have taken a toll on my psyche.
The object may be legal, but at its core, an eating disorder is like a drug addiction.
Whether it means avoiding friends so you can eat your regimental grapes for dinner, or hiding in your car late at night to binge on M&Ms, or stuffing yourself with every cookie you can grab at a meeting and then racing to the nearest bathroom, all the while praying no one will stop to chat and prevent you from purging, an eating disorder will take control of its victim. You cannot live life and have an eating disorder, just like you cannot live life and do drugs.
Throughout my recovery process, I've imagined how things would be if I hadn't sneaked that first piece of candy so many years ago. It's an interesting hypothetical, but ultimately, the point is moot. Even as I recover and learn healthy habits, I can never not know what I used to do to myself, how I used to feel about myself.
An eating disorder is a form of self-destruction. It may not be as dramatic as slitting wrists or popping pills, but the end result can be the same.
And like major depression or a drug addiction, an eating disorder will always betray itself -- first in the victim's thoughts and then in their actions.
By listening to your child and being alert to self-effacing comments, you may be able to save them before one of those diseases takes hold.
You may think that the greatest gift you can give your child is to love them. In fact, your greatest gift may be teaching your child to love herself.
I hope one day to master that lesson.
This seems so surreal to me. Just last week, I was watching the local news and they were reporting about how fat Americans are. Accompanying the report were anonymous shots of overweight people, and children... no faces, just bodies.

Where do you think children get the notion they're fat... from the same people posing this question. 'What do you do when your child says "I'm fat"?'

Turn off the News.
My friend's daughter is 12 years old, 5 feet tall and weighs over 150 pounds. She eats poorly, doesn't exercise and feels bad about her appearance. At some point she could no longer keep up with her peers in athletics at which point, she quit sports and gained more weight. She won't go to swim parties because she doesn't want to be seen in a swim suit. When this little girl says "I'm too fat" or "I need to lose weight" her (also overweight and unhealthy) mother responds with, "you're beautiful just the way you are". She may be beautiful, but she's unhappy and sick. She already has blood sugar problems, knee problems, and her weight exacerbates her asthma. She is also missing out on a big part of being a kid because she won't go out because she's self-concious. Mom may think she's beautiful, but the girl knows that she doesn't fit in and feels bad about it. When a teenager wants a tattoo, we talk to them about how it will effect how they're percieved when they go for a job interview, for instance, so why do we think it's so wrong to consider weight (which is also a heatlth risk) off limits when it comes to helping our children fit in socially and succeed? While I agree that there is an unhealthy amount of pressure for girls to be thin, some girls genuinely need to lose some weight both for their self-esteem and for their health. Where do we draw that line? Wouldn't we be doing her a favor to help her lose that weight and feel better about her self and have a better future health situation?
I think it depends. If the child is at a healthy weight then I would explain that we are all shapes and sizes and that yes the media sometimes conveys that we need to be scrawny to be happy, but that many times that is not healthy etc.

But, take a look around, many kids are overweight if not obese. If my child was overweight and said "mom I'm fat" I would respond with , "You are a beautiful person, but loosing some weight would be healthy. Would you like me to help you with that?". And then go from there.

I feel so bad for kids that I see that are only 6 or 8 years old and much bigger than I am and I'm 5'11 and a size 10. Their lives are being cut short and its so sad to see the parents filling the grocery cart up with junk food. I just don't understand why they are doing that to their children.
Dear Tim,

I am not sure of if you are familiar of a womens' psychologist Carol Gilligan: (her saying paraphrazed) women see themselves in a way they can relate to others.

In other words it is important to raise daughters with postive self image. THere are so many stressors out there which distort the reflection of how teenagers perceive of themselves, physically and emotionally. Besides food, there is drugs, alcohol, smoking etc.

Further, we are growing up with a dual love/hate emotional relationship with food. If it were simple, we could teach everyone to stick to a 2000 cal/day nutritionally balanced diet, but unfortunately we can't disconnect the emotion-linkage to food.
I would not be so quick to point the finger at the media and the countless number of anorexic models out there. A positive and healthy self image is cultivated at home, by parents. Though I do not have children, I was brought up to be more concerned with what was inside, while keeping the outside healthy and there isn't a magazine cover in the world that made me wish I was something other than who I am.
Dear Dr. Gupta,

I just saw today (8-17-07) your short piece on child/teen obesity. In it you mentioned the psychological danger that shadows obesity. PLEASE, give similar attention to the children who are in similar or worse danger due to their struggles with learning to read (tens of millions). Children that struggle to learn to read are in danger of becoming preconciously shame averse to the feeling of confusion. All too often this aversion becomes become profoundly learning disabling. Please investigate this wide spread harm to our children's mental and emotional health.

Thank you

David Boulton

I do believe parents should watch what they say around their children. I work in the lingerie industry and constantly hear self hate statements, mothers saying in front of their daughters "I'm fat, my boobs are too big, I look awful, etc." We can't control the "evil media" and blame them for everything. But we can and should control what we say and how we act. If you think "I'm fat" then go workout, eat better, take walks, be proactive with your body. Many parents are guiltier than any form of media. I have mothers who come in forcing their pre-teen daughters into girdles and shapewear to fit the perfect dress. Shame on these mothers.

Body image unfortunately affects pre-teens, wives, beauty queens, and wheelchair bound grandmothers. Women in their 80s have complained to me that their bra doesn't hide their back fat. So, I don't believe the media, internet, Cosmo or Vogue are the true culprits. Negative body image passes down from generation to generation. It can be stopped, so please mothers (and fathers), watch what you say and do.

I do not have a PhD or even children, but I do have ears that hear all the negativity that surrounds me. I try to interject and highlight the positive "you're alive and well", that's what really matters.
As a woman who grew up modeling and acting and who was naturally thin, but was always labeled "anorexic" the world of beauty has been a constant in my life. Although I remember hearing my beautiful, fit mother complain about the size of her nose, her breasts or her thighs, somehow I filtered that information and held on to the advice she and my dad gave about the importance of "strength" and "inner beauty." Inner beauty was always what I was most drawn to in other women, what I deeply admired. I now have three "pre-teen" girls, 8 and twins that are 5. The only magazine I buy is O the Oprah magazine. The rest make me feel an unnatural desire to purchase things I never knew I needed, or to look or feel ways that are so far from my essence. I refuse to talk about any sense of inadequacy about my looks, in front of my children, it is not a language they need to hear from their mother. We don't ban foods from our house but cookies and chips are "treats" and eaten in moderation. When we eat dinner, my husband and I will talk about the health benefits of the beans in our chili (for example) and how those foods feed our bodies and brains, and make us strong and smart. When people comment on our daughters saying "they are so beautiful," and they are within ear shot, I am quick to respond "Thank you - they are really wonderful people who are kind, smart and loving."
Having been a model representing beauty products, foods and clothing, the ultimate job I have ever landed is the job of "role model" to my three beautiful (inside and out) daughters.
It can be a challenge to distinguish between your child's comments that reflect poor self-esteem and comments that might mean your child could develop an eating disorder. If you think your child might be on the path to developing an eating disorder, take this quiz developed by the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt( to help identify if they are struggling with confidence or if they may need help dealing with an eating disorder. The quiz is set up so that parents can take the quiz on behalf of a male or female family member. It's a good way to start on the road to recovery.
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