NEDA Week: Body Image & Young Children

It’s National Eating Disorders Week – a week to raise awareness and educate the public about these devastating and often fatal mental health issues. For those of you who are new to this blog space, I don’t talk about it often, but I fought like hell for five years with an eating disorder that eventually landed me in heart failure. I’m not proud of it, and it’s not something that’s easy to talk about or wins me many fans, but that journey and that struggle is part of my testimony, so I own it. I worked hard to recover and move on, and by the grace of God (and thanks to an incredible team of therapists), I did.

I can finally say it no longer defines me, and I no longer feel shame in talking about it. I’m so thankful that anorexia was simply one chapter of many in my life. I was able to move on and turn a page to a new chapter, unlike so many women who fall victim to this terrible disease. Anorexia is the most fatal of all mental illnesses, and this week is a week to shed light on it.

It’s time to talk about this.

If you haven’t already read my full story, you can do so HERE

My battle may have been fought 15 years ago, but I daily have to make choices to ensure my family and I stay healthy. I’ve been reflecting a little bit lately on how I’m actively working to cultivate healthy body image, both in myself and in my children.

Being a mom, especially a young girl mom, the truth of the matter is that these issues start YOUNG. Like, REALLY young. So, I’ve been very strategic about the way I talk about food, exercise, and health since my children were born, and I thought it might be time to put it out there in the world. My prayer is that these action steps might help us re-frame the little things we do every day that can add up to big impact for our kids.  

Here’s the scary truth: studies tell us that by the time a girl has turned 6, she will say that her ideal body size is smaller than her current frame. 
SIX. 
That’s Kindergarten, y’all. My Kindergartener still sleeps with a monkey blanket every night, has Goofy on a shelf, and spills his milk at least three nights a week. These kids are straight babies, you guys.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to go down this road without a fight. 
Another scary truth: I don’t really think eating disorders can be prevented. At least, not FULLY prevented.
Recently, scientists have discovered that there is a genetic link to eating disorders, which can be a really scary fact for someone like me. BUT, here’s what I know: just because my children may be more LIKELY to develop eating disorders than children whose mothers didn’t have one, that doesn’t mean I can’t try to set them up for success. I can educate them and nurture them to develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies in order to possibly prevent them from walking the road I walked. 
So, let’s get practical…I am by no means a medical professional, but I do think there are some action steps we can take NOW, while our kiddos are still mold-able, that will shape their futures.

ACTION STEP: Drop the black and white talk.

No, I’m not talking about race here. What I mean by drop the black and white talk is to drop the notion that certain foods are either all GOOD or all BAD. Drop the labels. I think many of our children grow up in homes where parents are living in extremes – they hear their parents talk of being “good” when they’re dieting or being “bad” when they’re cheating. When parents bemoan their unhealthy choices or make comments about how they have to punish themselves at the gym for eating so poorly the night before, children begin to feel that they are bad people for eating certain foods. We need our children to understand that what they eat and who they are are mutually exclusive
So, my encouragement here would be to re-frame the language. The truth is that unless you have food allergies or specific dietary restrictions, all foods can and should be enjoyed in moderation. Let’s ditch this all or nothing mentality. Instead, I suggest we talk positively about what healthy food and exercise do for us. Rather than complain about our jeans feeling tight, let’s emphasize how we feel so energetic after running that 5K or taking that yoga class. Rather than whining about how our “bad” lunch at Chick-fil-A makes us bloated, let’s talk about how sweet that apple tasted or how that salad gave me vitamins to make me strong. Let’s highlight our positive choices for the ways they make us feel and what they do for us, rather than focusing on the negative choices we’ve made. 

ACTION STEP: Focus on strength for adults and growth for kids.

One of my absolute favorite things to talk about with my kids is how strong they are. Nothing gets my boys more fired up than showing off their muscles. We talk a lot in our house about how healthy food, exercise, and sleep helps us grow big and strong. Brooks has even picked up on it already, and after eating a carrot yesterday, walked over to me and said, “Me go up up up, higher and higher, right Mama?” He beamed with pride when I assured my tiniest boy that yes, his carrots did make him grow bigger and taller. (Just nobody tell him he’s still in the second percentile for height, mmmm-kay?) When my kids step on the scale in the bathroom or at the doctor’s office, never have I not cheered for them. No matter what that thing says, we celebrate it because it shows us how much we’ve grown. And when they want me to step on that scale for them? You’d better believe I join in their cheering, no matter what number I’m looking at or what the insecurities are telling me.

Two or three times a week, we head up to our neighborhood gym to work out (okay, okay, and to use the free childcare…), and I’m often asked by the little two why we have to come to the gym. And every single week, my answer is the same: because exercise keeps Mommy healthy and strong. Never once have I said anything about weight or my jeans or how much queso I ate the night before. I may have had those reasons in my head, but you’d better believe I wasn’t planting those seeds for my kids.

All they need to know at this young age is that exercise is healthy and makes us strong. Period. Don’t make it complicated. Because truthfully? It’s not.

ACTION STEP: Eat meals and exercise as a family. 

You saw this one coming a mile away, didn’t you? But, y’all, it’s SO true! Going on family walks or bike rides is not only great for bonding, but it’s so good for cultivating a healthy view of exercise! When you’re going on a walk as a family to the park or exploring a new hiking path together, there’s a sense of adventure and fun there. We WANT our kiddos to find exercise fun! It shouldn’t be seen as punishment! I can tell you right now, having a child with limited mobility due to a broken leg, that the chance to walk or ride around the neighborhood is a gift! Carter would give you the boot off his broken leg (literally) if you told him he could go on a long bike ride tomorrow. We need our children to see exercise as a pleasurable experience and something to look forward to, and there’s no better way to cement that than family outings.

Before I go into family meals, let me just preface by saying I GET IT. With 832 different schedules and practices and homework and jobs, I know this one’s hard. And it certainly doesn’t have to happen every night…but at least a few nights a week, enjoying a meal together is critical to developing a healthy relationship with food. There is so much more that happens at a dinner table than dinner. There is eye contact, conversation, taking turns, laughter, and, okay, a little bit of chaos if yours are little like mine. BUT! BUT! It’s worth fighting through the chaos to share a healthy meal when you can. And bonus points if your kids help you with the cooking!

Last, but not least…

ACTION STEP: Just stop talking.  

Yes, I know, this sounds harsh, but it’s true. For the love, people…STOP TALKING ABOUT APPEARANCES ALL THE TIME. And by this I mean your body AND other people’s bodies. We have SUCH a fixation in our society with our physical appearances. We fixate on our hair, we gossip when someone has put on weight, we constantly whine about our wrinkles and stretch marks.

And I’m calling it out today: STOP.

Our bodies were created to DO. When God created us thousands of years ago, His primary focus was not on how we looked, but what we could DO with our bodies. We were created to work, to learn, to carry children, to feed children, to travel with our families. We were supposed to feed and nurture that body to keep it strong so we could continue to work. We were never meant to focus so much on how that body looked…but that’s part of our fall as human beings.

That stretched out tummy that now resembles a frowning face? It grew a human. Or two. Or twelve if you’re a Duggar.
Those saggy boobs? It kept a few tiny people alive for a year.
That thigh gap you constantly covet? Screw it! Your thighs ran a half marathon.

Enough complaining, you guys. Enough fixating. Enough battling something that was never meant to be fought in the first place. Let’s get over it already.

And here’s why this is so critical when you have little ears around…they hear everything. And repeat everything.

The other night, my husband was telling me a story about something scary (or maybe exciting…I can’t be sure as I was only half-listening…) that happened at work, and without thinking, I replied, “Oh, damn!” Can you guess what the next two words out of our sweet baby boy’s mouth were? Yep. You know it. He looked right in my eyes and said, “Oh, damn.”

   I’ll leave my “Mother of the Year” trophy on the door step for collection.

When you look in the mirror and verbally criticize those laugh lines on your face with your little girl standing at your feet, do you really think she’s not paying attention? She’s looking at you, who in her eyes is the most beautiful woman in the world, and you’re feeding her negativity. Whether she’s aware of it in the moment or not, you’re teaching her how to be a woman, and what she just learned is this: women criticize themselves.

Is that really the message we want her to learn?

I want to see my little girl looking in the mirror admiring how strong she is, how much she’s grown, or, better yet, moving her focus away from the mirror and into the eyes of people. I want to teach her that it’s more important to look out than to look in. I want her to learn that we focus on others, not fixate on ourselves.

  So, those are my thoughts for this NEDA week. We can plant seeds now that can create change later, and I hope you’ll join me as we fight for our kids.

If you or someone you know is struggling in this area, I’d highly encourage you to check out https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/ or find a local therapist who can help you. If you’d like to contact me directly to help you find resources in your area, you may always do so at awezell@gmail.com.

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