While the United States is making strides in eating disorder representation, education, and advocacy, there is still so much work to be done. Educating ourselves on eating disorders is essential in spotting the signs in ourselves and in others. Because of this, it is of the utmost importance that parents understand the environmental risks for eating disorders in their children, including the unrealistic body ideals that are often pushed in the media.
There are three factors that contribute to an individual getting an eating disorder: biological, psychological, and environmental. Although environmental factors are not the only factors contributing to the development of an eating disorder, it is one type we can protect against. While we cannot shield our children from the negative messages they may receive or the impossible beauty standards idealized in our culture, we can create a home environment that includes education on eating disorders, the celebration of body diversity, and praising each other for our traits and our accomplishments unrelated to appearance. Below are five ways to help protect the next generation against the environmental factors that contribute to eating disorders.
1. Lead by Example
When we say “lead by example,” we mean by practicing positive attitudes and behaviors toward your body. Children pay attention to their parents much more than parents may even realize. Think about your own thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors toward your body. If you’re constantly criticizing yourself or others or dieting, your child is more likely to learn to do the same and accept that as a normal part of life. According to NEDA, adolescents who engage in moderate dieting are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder and those who engage in extreme dieting are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder. Set the example for your child, modeling that all food is good food, that exercise is not meant to be punishment, and that body acceptance should be the norm.
2. Educate Your Child on Body Diversity
Body diversity is the idea that there are many possible ways to have a body, and that no body types are better than others. Celebrating body diversity is in direct opposition to the thin ideal, or the idea that thinness is equivalent to attractiveness, success, and happiness. Because the thin ideal is so enmeshed in our society, it is important to teach your child to embrace all body types and treat others with respect and dignity, regardless of how they look. Every time that you remind your child that every body type is worthy of love, respect, success, and more, you aid in changing the stigma surrounding weight. Weight stigma is accepted as normal in our culture and teaching the next generation to notice it and call it out when they see it is extremely powerful.
3. Explain the Unrealistic Standards in the Media
Explain to your child that much of the media portrays unrealistic ideals and that the human body should be celebrated in all shapes and sizes. Thinness is a key component of how beauty is evaluated in the United States and other Western countries. It is likely that your children will frequently receive the incorrect message that having a certain body type is the only way to achieve power, popularity, and perfection. Help your child understand that this idea is untrue and harmful to many people. Also, encourage your child, once they are at an appropriate age, to look for media that celebrates all shapes and sizes and avoid media that pushes unrealistic beauty standards.
4. Avoid Body Commentary Altogether
Commenting on your child’s body can be very damaging to their self-worth. It is so important not to comment on your child’s body, even in a way you see as a compliment. Commenting positive things about your child’s body could indicate to them that they should place their worth largely on how they look. Commenting negatively on your child’s body could have lasting impacts on their self-esteem and mental health. If your child says something disparaging about their body, it is important to tell them that bodies of all shapes and sizes deserve love and respect. Praise your children for positive character traits and accomplishments, not for how they look.
5. Help Them Build Their Self-esteem
Encourage your child to participate in activities that build up their self-esteem and self-respect. This could include a sport, a club, or a hobby. If the activity they choose to partake in involves physical activity, make sure to emphasize that physical activity is not meant to be a punishment, and that it is not just meant to keep us small. Another great way to help them build a positive body image is to make sure to celebrate the diversity of body types. Emphasize that body types are different but none are better than others.
We Can Change the Future
A child growing up in our culture is regularly exposed to the thin ideal. Part of raising a child in our culture is the responsibility to educate your child about the unrealistic body ideals they will face and that the human body deserves to be celebrated at every size. Eating disorders cannot be completely eradicated by implementing all the tips discussed in this article, but these tips can make a huge difference and have an incredibly positive impact on the next generation. We must praise our children for their traits and accomplishments so they know that their worth is not based on how they look, but instead on who they are and what they do.
If you or a family member is interested in learning more about eating disorder recovery, explore Veritas’ Child & Adolescent Treatment Program.