momlogic: What are some underlying causes of eating disorders?
Janice Styer: In my experience, the earliest messages about body image come from parents. We also find that girls are extremely vulnerable to these messages as their bodies change and they move into puberty. That only gets compounded by the emphasis society puts on outer "beauty" and unrealistic thinness.
ml: What constitutes an eating disorder, and what are some of the signs?
JS: An eating disorder is a psychological disorder characterized by serious disturbances in eating behavior. Early signs may include:
- Obsessing over food labels and contents of food
- Making excuses as to why she isn't hungry
- Going to the bathroom right after eating on a regular basis
- Criticizing her own body or the bodies of other girls who appear healthy
- Hiding food that she may binge on in secret
- Extreme focus on being "thin" instead of being healthy
- Drastic change in eating habits, such as giving up all carbs or sweets
ml: How should moms talk to their daughters about food and body image?
JS: It's really important for moms to understand that they can make a positive impression on their daughters by being mindful of their language and even subtle behaviors. Here are some dos and don'ts:
- Do encourage her to value herself as an individual. She needs to know from an early age that she is her own person. This may help ease any pressure she feels from society to conform to a celebrated image.
- Do teach her about taking care of her body in a healthy way. Whether it's hiking, biking, eating leafy greens or enjoying a bowl of oatmeal, encourage her to respect and take care of her body from an early age.
- Do community service as a family. When she understands that she can make a difference in the world by giving back, she may be less focused on her body's imperfections and more focused on how to improve the world's imperfections.
- Do get help if you suspect that you yourself have an eating disorder. Unfortunately, a mom with disordered eating can pass that self-loathing on to her daughter.
- Don't live vicariously through her. Your daughter is her own being, separate from you. Recognizing where you end and she begins will be an invaluable lesson as she grows into her own person.
- Don't criticize her body. Even something seemingly innocent, such as trying on clothes in a store and remarking that a shirt is "too tight," could give the wrong impression. Instead, make a plan that you'll pick the two outfits you both like the best.
- Don't create negative associations with food by saying, for example, that you "shouldn't" eat something or that certain foods are "good" and "bad."
- Don't ignore the warning signs that your child may have a problem. It's better to err on the side of caution and have her behavior professionally assessed than risk having her spiral into a serious mental-health condition.
ml: It has been said that self-loathing is often at the root of an eating disorder. Can this also lead to other issues, such as drug abuse?
JS: Yes, self-loathing plays a major role in developing an addiction. Most of the girls we treat at Caron are turning to drugs to self-soothe, to cope and to generally manage their pain, discomfort, shame and self-hatred. In my experience at Caron, 80 percent of the girls we see in treatment for addiction also have body-image issues. Some are more severe than others, but the majority of girls choose drugs that are going to keep them thin or help them lose weight.