Girls and Eating Disorders

"Eat your broccoli or you're gonna get fat."  --Rap song invented by two 9-year old girls

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, approximately a half million teenagers struggle with eating disorders or unhealthy eating patterns. The Archives of General Psychiatry states that nearly one in 60 adolescents qualifies for a diagnosis of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. Ninety percent of young women who develop an eating disorder are between ages 12 and 15. And one-half of 4th grade girls are on a diet.

Clearly, many young girls are in trouble with their eating, bodies, and self-esteem. Why do girls develop eating disorders? What can parents do? When can professional help be beneficial?

Why do girls develop eating disorders?

Girls are vulnerable to media messages that appearance is everything, weight is an accurate measure of one's worth, and that thinner is better. Girl's vulnerability comes from the fact that they are developing their identity and trying on for size the various cultural definitions of what makes a successful and beautiful female. In a fashion e-mail I recently received, products for sale included: Too Hot to Handle pocketbooks, Eye Candy jewelry, Fever blouses, Get Noticed Handbags, and Flirty mink lashes. The hyped-up advertising which promotes being hot, glamorous, and perfect is almost hysterical in nature.

Although our culture's worship of skinny models and actresses may contribute to body image distress and the development of eating disorders, in truth, girls are prone to eating problems when their basic self-confidence is shaky and they feel insecure, depressed, or anxious. Girls are vulnerable to developing eating disorders because of three key factors: (1) relentless cultural messages to be thin, (2) low self-esteem and insecurity, and (3) going on a strict diet which sets up a binge-diet cycle. These factors create the perfect storm for the development of an eating disorder.

Adolescents - both girls and boys - face weighty emotional and social challenges at this stage of development: separating from their parents; finding a supportive group of friends; figuring out who they really are and what they want to do with their lives. These are critical and anxiety provoking transitions.

What can parents do to help their children's self-esteem?

Teens turn to eating disorders as coping mechanisms, as "solutions" to deal with what makes them anxious. The key ingredient to prevent eating disorders is by building a child's self-esteem. Parents and kids need to talk openly about feelings, problems, emotions, disagreements, and have everyone listen respectfully to the opinions of the other family members. In psychotherapy we call this type of supportive talking and listening "empathic attunement."

Which is an example of empathic attunement?:

Mrs. C: "You shouldn't feel disappointed. When I was growing up, my parents never gave me half of what we give you.

Mrs. D: "I understand that you are feeling deprived and mad that we can't afford to send you on that trip. I'm sorry. I know this is tough."

Mr. A: "If your sister can lose weight, so can you. Just try harder."

Mr. B: "I know you feel bad that your sister is losing weight. But everyone's different. Why don't we do something special on Shabbos and go for a walk together. Then we can have time to chat about how things are going for you."

 Mrs. E: "So your father and I yell and fight sometimes? I had it much worse than you with my parents. You'll get over it. Don't be so sensitive."

Mrs. F: "I know it's scary when Daddy and I fight. I wish we could talk about things more calmly. We are trying to work things out. Just know that we always love you even when we are having a hard time with each other."

Of course, there are a host of reasons for childhood and adolescent eating disorders ranging from biological issues to psychological vulnerability to anxiety and depression. But parents can play a strong role in preventing eating disorders by "inoculating" their children's self-esteem. When parents empathize with their children, kids feel understood. Talking and listening to a child's feelings encourages her to express herself directly without the need for the soothing - but temporary - comfort of an eating disorder.

A sad, yet funny, example of a parent giving her kid all the wrong messages is the story of Real Housewife of New York, actress Bethenny Frankel. At age 43, Bethenny boasted she is now so thin that she can fit into her 4 year old daughter's tiny baby doll pajamas! Although Frankel confessed to eating disorders in 2011, it appears she hasn't learned much about how to be a role model for her child.

Good, strong parents help their children grow into wholeness, not yearn to fit into their pajamas from when they were four years old!

Parents need to dial-down this cultural hysteria and focus on the inner beauty of their daughters - their ability to express themselves, their integrity, and their souls. That is true Girl Power!

Published in IMAGE Magazine