Can I Stomach This Work?
I had a phone discussion with a mom last week that left me asking can I stomach this work?. She called because she’d discovered that her (overweight) 7-year old daughter was hiding food in her room. She went on to say that she was concerned that the pediatritian was too laid back saying “she’ll outgrow it” and “eventually someone will say something and she’ll lose the weight”. Mom appropriately expressed concern that a peer noticing would actually launch her daughter into a full-fledged eating disorder. My heart went out to her as she grappled with how and when to set limits around food, whether or not it’s ok to allow her daughter to keep food in her room and how to help her lose weight without creating a psychological disorder. Although I’ve discussed this with many parents before, rarely have I done so with parents of a child so young at least since I have become a parent myself. I recognize that kids are dealing with these issues at a much younger age these days but somehow I’ve been able to keep some emotional distance. This brought it all closer to home; this child was only a few years older than my own. I got off the phone with a sinking, helpless feeling in my gut that that lingered through dinner.
Weight is too often used as the primary measure of health and beauty. It’s viewed as something entirely under one’s control. And let’s face it, to some extent it is but not with out dire consequences not the least of which is diminished quality of life. We often see the body and our natural drive for food as something to be tamed into submission. Even at the ripe age of 7. Sending home BMI reports, talking about statistics on obesity, dichotomizing foods into “good” or “bad” (as children will most certainly interpret as “I’m good” or “I’m bad”) and feeling lost ourselves in this battle against the”obesity epidemic” as it’s so frequently described serves to create fear and shame as opposed to actually healing this problem.
Thankfully, I let my gut reaction guide my response to this mother who was clearly scared and feeling helpless as well. I suggested she explore this with her daughter. Ask her what she’s feeling and what led her to hide these foods; to dig a little deeper find out what’s under the behavior. Offer a safe place for her to share whatever she may be feeling. Remain nonjudgemental. And last, but certainly not least, give her a hug.
The same visceral reaction arose yesterday when one of my colleagues was sharing an eating disorder case in our supervision group. She started by saying “it all started at age 7 when…..” Is this really the age we’re starting to see these body image and disordered eating issues pop up? This is more of a rhetorical question because I know the answer but just honestly, can’t believe it. I’m trying to think back to what I was doing at that age… riding my bike, playing outside, birthday parties with cake and ice cream, roller skating and pizza, huge ice cream cones after the beach, ballet. Dieting or body image issues were no where in sight. This may not have been the case for everyone but shouldn’t it be? Isn’t self worth and self-care more important than a number on the scale? Let’s start thinking of some ways to help our young girls (and boys). Here are some ideas from a great psychologist Catherine Steiner Adair.