Eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, have the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition. They’re also widespread and highly prevalent in adolescents. They strike individuals of all different social classes, ethnicities and genders (although the majority of victims are female, 10 to 15 percent of sufferers are male). They can also easily last for years, if not a lifetime. Here are some ways to fight them before they start.
For better or for worse, one of the compliments little girls often receive is “Oh, you’re so pretty!” While there’s nothing inherently malicious about this, it sets a precedent that tends to continue as these girls grow up. Beautiful girls—meaning girls who conform to a particular, often rather svelte standard—are admired and praised throughout Western and Thai societies. It’s no wonder then that so many young women (and, for that matter, men) feel they must be attractive in order to be valued. Instead of praising your little girl for looking so lovely all the time, talk about how smart she is, how fast she can run, or what a great friend she is to others. Every child is good at something. By focusing more on their accomplishments than their outward appearance, you teach them to do the same. Adolescents with a strong sense of self-worth that comes from within are much less likely to succumb to an eating disorder.
No one looks like the models on magazine covers, not even the models on magazine covers. Many of these women are pressured to maintain an unhealthily low body weight in order to continue to get jobs. Some have died from malnutrition. The problem is that although these women undergo grueling, sometimes dangerous diet and exercise regimes, the final photoshopped product shows no signs of suffering. Magazines regularly airbrush out details such as exposed vertebrae and ribs, sickly skin, sunken eyes or splintered, brittle hair, all the while digitally whittling those waistlines down even more. The result is the illusion that desperately underweight women can look beautiful and healthy. Talk to your teen about the amount of work that goes into creating this fantasy and what they think about it.
Teenage girls aren’t the only ones with body issues and insecurities. Diet plans and weight loss are common topics of interest among adults. Plenty of parents out there struggle with their weight. Try to avoid obsessing over or complaining about diet plans or your own insecurities in front of your child. If you need to lose some weight, it is of course okay to do so. But making dieting a pivotal focus in your household can send the wrong message to your kids.
It’s hard not to notice that healthy relationships with food are few and far between. A quick flip through the magazine stand will turn up articles with titles like “Top 10 Ultimate Bacon Brunches” and “The Kale Diet: How to Shed Those Kilos by Drinking Nothing but Green Smoothies!” Turn to the tabloids section and you’re likely to see covers slamming starlets for putting on weight and trashing others for being too thin. There aren’t a lot of role models for a healthy, sustainable medium. Make an effort to teach your children something about nutrition without making it a source of guilt. Try to provide healthy meals and snacks, but don’t shame them for wanting desserts or junk food on occasion.
The Second Class Honors, M.D.,Faculty of Medicine, Chiang Mai University, 2008.