Did you know that 30 million people in the U.S. suffer from eating disorders? And every 62 minutes, a person dies as a direct result of an eating disorder? There is a higher mortality rate from eating disorders than from any other mental illness.
After reading these statistics, I feel incredibly fortunate that I am part of the 60% of people who recover from eating disorders.
My eating disorder started rather innocently. It was the end of my second year of college, and I had started to focus more on exercising and eating healthfully to combat the dreaded Freshman 15. It didn’t take long, though, for my health kick to become an obsession, partly because I have an all-or-nothing personality, and partly because I struggled throughout college with low self-esteem.
I attended the best university I got into, a smart move in some ways, but not necessarily an easy one. From the first week I felt overwhelmed by how smart, talented, attractive, and socially skilled all the other girls were. Was I smart enough? Pretty enough? Funny enough? Talented enough? Would I ever be enough? These questions plagued me.
Once I started exercising obsessively, I found a way that I could be enough. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough or pretty enough or cool enough, but I could definitely be thin enough. That was one thing I could control. At that point, it seemed working out and eating as little as possible were the only ways I could feel really good about myself.
I kept up with those behaviors for about nine months before finally confronting the problem and admitting to myself that things had spiraled out of control. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I called my mom to admit my problem to her minutes after she had finished a nine-week prayer that I would recover from my eating disorder.
Over time, I did recover. The patterns of thinking lingered for years after that initial recovery, but I got much better. And once I became a mom, I recovered fully.
A mom to three girls, I feel immense pressure to help them develop a positive body image in the hopes that they will not fall into the same trap that I did. Early on, I researched ways of fostering a healthy body image and developed a few key rules:
1) Focus on qualities other than their appearance. I try to avoid overemphasizing aspects of their appearance, particularly their body shape. I had always been slim, and having people comment on how lucky I was to be slim made me feel like I had to maintain that shape to be liked. I try to focus instead on what their bodies enable them to do.
2) Avoid making comments on your own appearance. I decided early on to eliminate all the negative, body-related self-talk we women tend to participate in. I’m not perfect, but I try very hard to avoid making comments like, “I shouldn’t have eaten so much,” or “I feel fat.” I just don’t even want that kind of thinking to be on their radar.
3) Avoid commenting on other people’s appearances. It isn’t helpful to make comments about how skinny or pretty another girl or woman is, even if you’re talking about a celebrity. Instead, I try to focus on interior qualities or personalities. And if a celebrity makes a point of being photographed without makeup or airbrushing, I help them see that most celebrity photos aren’t realistic.
4) Help them find activities they enjoy and are good at. Any activity a child can do well helps develop confidence and self-esteem.
Parenting is tough, and even if we do all of the above, we may not be able to prevent eating disorders or any other problem our kids may have. As with most things, paying attention and engaging in open dialogue can be extremely beneficial. And, as I learned from my own experience, prayer doesn’t hurt!