During the holidays, as we gather with friends and family, eating disorder experts and educators want everyone to pay attention to their words about weight and body image around the little ones.
Ary Maharaj, Outreach and Education Coordinator for the National Information Center on Eating Disorders (NEDIC), said that language matters and that children up to five years old take up conversations about our body, food and weight.
“There were studies conducted even last year in 2021 that found that girls as young as five have already internalized that slimmer bodies are better,” Maharaj said.
“They will choose dolls with smaller body types or smaller body proportions than otherwise.”
It’s not uncommon to comment on weight and image, especially when you haven’t seen someone in a long time.
“’You look great, have you lost weight?’” It’s something Maharaj pointed out that is often said at family gatherings.
“We immediately comment on weight and I think that sends a message to our young people that their weight is really important. I’d love to replace that with ‘Nice to see you,’ if that’s what you really mean. “
Maharaj said more than a million Canadians are estimated to have an eating disorder, roughly the population of Saskatchewan, but said the data is from 2012 and the reality is that the number is likely to be much higher.
The NEDIC is 60 percent busier than pre-pandemic volume and COVID-19 caused a change in eating habits and structure, especially for young Canadians who were forced to attend school online while going through the puberty.
How the COVID-19 pandemic caused an increase in eating disorders in adolescents and adults
Natalie Vandenbossche, from Macomb County, Michigan, and her 12-year-old daughter Eva can be identified.
With COVID, the mother of three said the family spent a lot of time at home and Eva went through a period of accelerated growth.
“We were looking through her things and trying to find snow pants,” Vandenbossche said, “and she found her pants from last year. She tried them on and was really struggling to lift them onto her thighs and glutes.
“She just looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I think my butt and thighs are too powerful for these pants!'”
Vandenbossche tweeted Eva’s response, creating a lot of attention for all the right reasons.
“I’m amazed at how many people it resonated with,” said the mother.
“I hope he rethinks himself, makes people stop and think about the words they use and how they see their own bodies.”
Vandenbossche said she makes sure she doesn’t talk negatively about body and weight at home.
“We focus on what our body can do and not on how it looks.”
The mother said that growing up, she struggled with the size of her thighs and always tried to “shrink” herself.
Then she discovered Kortney olson, a powerful woman – her claim to fame is smashing watermelons between her thighs.
“That brought me inspiration,” Vandenbossche said, “and I thought, ‘This is a strong part of my body that I should embrace.’
Vandenbossche turned to weightlifting and jiu-jitsu, and family life has focused on moving, rejecting that weight and size are the holy grail of health.
“It’s much more shocking to think about how powerful we are as humans, rather than being preoccupied and obsessed with shrinking.”
Maharaj said that we all “have the power to be really positive influential adults.
“So if you say something like ‘I feel fat today,’ even if the answer is, ‘You’re not fat, you’re beautiful.’ You are perpetuating a narrative that young people can begin to grasp. As if being fat or being bigger is suddenly bad or as a human being, you deserve less in terms of respect for yourself.
“If you hear someone mention something like ‘I feel so fat today,’ remember that fat is not a feeling.”
Other phrases Maharaj said that do more harm than good include labeling food as good or bad.
“I’ve heard things like, ‘Cookies are so bad I shouldn’t eat them,’ ‘I really should work with this food,’ or ‘You are what you eat.
Maharaj said that making food moral can have long-lasting consequences for children, and due to rising food costs, many families struggle to put food options on the table.
He stressed that “no food is never food.”
If you think your child has an eating disorder, Maharaj urged caregivers to seek help as soon as possible.
“What we know about eating disorders compared to other mental health problems,” Maharaj said, “is the age of onset, so when they develop it is usually at a younger age. So kids ages 10, 11, 12, rather than 15, 16, 17 for other mental health conditions.
“The sooner you get help, the better your chances of preventing the most deadly eating disorder from developing.”
The NEDIC has a toll-free helpline and online chat function.
NEDIC Helpline: 1-866-NEDIC-20 (1-866-633-4220)
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