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Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Raising Little Girls

Feb25

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I was out shopping with my daughter a few weeks ago when she pointed to a display rack of bras. They were bright and colorful. They were padded. They were in the little girl section of the store. I stood there in disbelief wondering why a 5, 6, even 8 or 9 year old would need a bra like this, especially a padded bra. Before I could say anything my daughter turned to me and excitedly asked for one.

Oh no, I thought, even the youngest girls are no longer immune from the message that their body isn’t good enough the way it is. I thought I had at least a few more years before I would have to worry about this sort of thing with my daughter. 

I am not sure I can pinpoint the moment that I first hated my body. I remember my mother telling me one day that it was a shame I had such thick legs. She had clucked her tongue and shaken her head as if it were a tragedy of epic proportions. In my memory it seems like one day I just took my body for granted– it was just my body not something I gave even a second thought about– then the next day I was filled with loathing. Before the comment about my legs it hadn’t occurred to me that I shouldn’t like something about myself.

I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what causes one person to develop an eating disorder while another person does not. Or what causes one person to turn to food as comfort and another to find the same comfort in starvation.

I don’t think that the comment from my mother caused an eating disorder, but it pointed me toward the path. From that point on I couldn’t look at my legs without noticing how fat they were. It was all-consuming. I learned to like wearing pants all year long.   I began picking apart other parts of my body that were clearly inferior.  My nose was too big.  My shoulders too narrow.  My hips too wide. My boobs non-existent.  And my big toes, well they were just all wrong.

Fast forward a few years, I had a boyfriend who successfully eroded what little self esteem I had made it through high school with.  I’d like to blame him for my downward spiral, but I think in many ways you teach people how to treat you. And when you hate yourself, you are showing the other person that there really isn’t anything to value in you. It becomes a vicious cycle.

A year or so into that relationship I was deep into an eating disorder. I would only eat one thing all day. I wouldn’t go into the cafeteria at college because I was afraid I’d be tempted to buy something. So I would pack a lunch. A tomato sandwich, two slices of bread and two slices of tomato. At first I salted the tomatoes, but then I got it into my head that the salt was making me retain water and look bloated. So I reduced it to half a sandwich and cut out the salt.

The less I ate the more in control I felt. I would go to bed at night dreaming of food, pizza, fried chicken, potato chips. Foods that I would never dare eat. I would get up in the morning tired and hungry. I’d look at my body, the hollow of my stomach, the skin stretched over my hipbones, and it wasn’t thin enough. A friend of mine told me that I wouldn’t be happy until I got so thin I simply disappeared and ceased to exist. I had thought what would be so bad about that?

I eventually got out of that relationship and slowly clawed my way back to the living.

I’d like to say that now all these years later the eating disorder is gone. But it isn’t really. I will never have a completely normal relationship with food. Most days I can pass as normal. I eat healthy foods, I exercise in moderation, I don’t calculate in my head how many calories I need to burn off for every bite I take. However, during times of stress or unhappiness I stop eating. Most often I don’t even notice it until a day or more has passed and I realize with shock that the reason I have a headache is because I have not eaten a single thing.

I don’t hate my body, or myself, anymore. I think that has been a gift of growing older. I honestly cannot remember why I hated the way I looked so much.  Once I was approaching forty it suddenly seemed so pointless to focus on physical attributes that were obviously falling apart anyway. I clearly remember looking in the mirrior one day as I got out of the shower and thinking that I would kill for those thighs I thought were too fat at 20. And the breasts I hated because I thought they were too small have been replaced by a set that have been ravished by over a decade of breastfeeding. Not only do they sag, they are are full cup size smaller than they were 20 years ago.

It is sad that I love the body I have now more than I loved the one I had back then. Sad for the twenty year old I once was, not for the 40 year old I am now. I wish I could go back and tell my old self that she is enough. That she is worthy. That eating will make her happier. That she could let go of trying to be perfect.

I wonder all the time how to protect my daughter from the going through the same intense self hatred that I did. I model the kind of attitude I would like her to have about her body. However, mine isn’t the only opinion she hears.

She already tells me that she doesn’t ever want to get fat. She tells me how her friends at school comment on how tiny and cute she is. In her mind those those two go together: tiny and cute. She doesn’t think you can be big and cute, and you certainly can not be fat and cute. I think of those tiny bras I saw at the store, of how many of her friends, who are just a year or two older, are already shaving their legs. I think of everything the media throws at our girls and the ideals of beauty which are unattainable without plastic surgery. I think about how the porn industry has become mainstream. And I think it will be something of a miracle that any little girls will make it to adulthood unscathed.

About the author

Chris Jordan

http://notesfromthetrenches.com
Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she writes about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children.

Yes, they are all hers.

No she's not Catholic or Mormon. Though she wouldn’t mind having a sister-wife because holy hell the laundry never stops.

Yes, she finally figured out what causes it. That's why her youngest is almost 6.

Yes, she has a television.

She enjoys referring to herself in the third person.

If you would like to submit a question for Chris to answer publicly, please do so to adviceforparentsoftweens[at]gmail[dot]com.


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16 Responses to “Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Raising Little Girls”

  1. Colleen Feb 26 at 12:06 am Reply Reply

    I appreciated reading this. Although I don’t have a formal eating disorder, I definitely have an unhealthy relationship with food and an unhealthy body image. I think my biggest concern when we found out we were having a girl was how to break this cycle. I know I can’t raise her in a bubble to avoid the cultural messages, but I want to equip her with the tools to fight against those messages. 

  2. Kira Feb 26 at 10:36 am Reply Reply

    I’ve really found that having a daughter has forced me to reconsider how I approach my own body.  Before I got pregnant, I hated when my size 4 jeans got tight on my thighs.  Now, I just buy the next size up.  Also, I’m very aware of the amount of time I spend in front of the mirror, wishing I had a smaller butt or thinner thighs.  Even when I was at my thinnest, I still had jiggly bits, and I always thought that losing just five more pounds would help me to lose that jiggle.  Now, my husband and I (who have both had some body-image issues) are trying to focus on the amazing things that our bodies can do (like make babies! go for walks!  jump up and down! do summersaults!), instead of how they look.  We’re hoping that we can try to pass on some positive body imagery to our children, or that we can at least give them an alternative to the cultural pressures and stereotypes.

  3. Morgan Feb 27 at 11:50 pm Reply Reply

    Here is an important resource for parents going through this with their children – Give Food A Chance by Dr. Julie O’Toole. Dr. O’Toole founded the Kartini Clinic in Portland OR, a treatment facility that specializes in treating teens and children with ED
    http://www.perfscipress.com/give-food-a-chance-julie-otoole-eating-disorder-bulimia-kartini-clinic/

  4. Dezzie Feb 28 at 7:52 am Reply Reply

    Thank you for this great post. It brings also the inevitable but so crucial question of “how not to repeat history”. I think my mum loves me, but her actions have told me the contrary so many times… I was never good enough, pretty enough. Because of her I hate my tiny breasts and can’t stand the fact that I am a black person… yes my mother manage to do that to me. Because of her: I’ve always wanted to be a pretty blond girl with blue eyes.I am very worried as well about culture and media and the messages my daughter will eventually be exposed to. But what worries me most is knowing that you can love you child very much and yet do things that can hurt them so badly. If I was telling this to my mother now, she would deny and say that she had never intended this to happen, that all she wanted was for me to be happy…

  5. ama Feb 28 at 8:52 pm Reply Reply

    Interesting… I remember my mom telling me how my breasts were crooked, my hips were crooked, my arms were fat… I didn’t end up with an eating disorder, but my self esteem has always been low, to the point that I threatened suicide- at the age of 15.

    I have a 3yr old daughter. I worry about telling her how beautiful she is. I worry that she’ll think that’s all I care about and all that she should care about. So I’ve started telling her she’s beautiful inside and out. And that she’s clever and smart, etc…

    As for clothes, it’s so hard finding clothing that is little girl style, even at this age! She’s a little girl and I want to dress her as such- not like a wannabe pre-teen. bleh. I see the girls in my boys’ elementary school and sometimes it really scares me what I’ll be dealing with in the not too far future.

  6. Jennifer Mar 01 at 3:48 pm Reply Reply

    I have two young girls myself and I actively don’t use words like “lose weight” or “fat” or talk aboout anything body realted within earshot of them. I tell them about sometimes foods and anytime foods and that they have to have a healthy snack before the cookie. I know I can’t keep them sheltered from all that society is going to tell them they should look like but dammit I’m going to try for as long as I can!You are very missed at your blog. I hope the trolls who have no sense haven’y made you feel like giving up.

  7. Christina Mar 01 at 6:47 pm Reply Reply

    Wonderful. Thank you. Also, I miss you at Notes from the Trenches. 

  8. Erin Mar 02 at 1:39 pm Reply Reply

    I have a 9-year old daughter who is in 3rd grade, and I am amazed at the body image issues some of her peers discuss. She has just started a program through her school called “Girls on the Run” which is a fitness/empowering girls program that I hope will augment what she is hearing from us at home. We went to Kohl’s to buy her some new running shoes and I was appalled to see not one, but two brands of those Shape-up/Toning sneakers in the girls’ section. Seriously, with all of the other negative body image messaging they are faced with, we need our daughters to worry about toning their thighs and bottoms with shoes?!?! Thank you for your wonderful writing, and I was thrilled to see a new post at NFTT yesterday. I’ve missed your voice.

  9. Sid Mar 02 at 1:59 pm Reply Reply

    Thank you for this post. How sad is it that a single comment from your own mother is the turning-point you remember from being happy with (or blissfully ignorant of) your body to hating it? I grew up with a mother whose similar comments have always rung in my head: I couldn’t spell; I couldn’t carry a tune; I had “sturdy” legs, etc. She was also obsessed with my nose (?!) and pushed me into a (completely unnecessary) nosejob at age 15. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that the full sickness and weirdness of her obsessions with MY body came to hit me. I would NEVER even think to say those things to my daughter. I realize now that her mother did the same things to her and though she hated her for it, my mom did exactly the same things to me. I will do everything I can to make sure I break that sick cycle. People want to blame the media but sometimes your family members are the real problem.

  10. tina Mar 02 at 6:54 pm Reply Reply

    What a great post! I felt as though I were reading a well written account of myself and my experiences! Thank you!

  11. Lynn Mar 03 at 11:59 am Reply Reply

    My niece was 5 at the time, she’s now 6. She does local pageants. We discovered that she was paying attention when we were talking about a dress getting to small and the straps fitting tightly. The next time she wore it she pointed to those straps and says “can you see my fat part” and we were like, do what! We had never used those words. Her mom had some talking to do. I also have missed your writing at Notes From The Trenches. I searched for this website just couldn’t remember where it was. I just enjoy your writing.

  12. KellyB Mar 03 at 12:40 pm Reply Reply

    Wonderful post. I’m so glad that you posted at NFTT’s, I’ve missed your blog. I just read Unbearable Lightness by Portia De Rossi who discusses her eating disorder, it was an amazing book. I remember when my mom told me that I had cankles, no ankles at all, and still till this day (i’m 41), she tells me how I should watch what I eat and loose weight, its like a contest for her. Which I don’t really need. Thanks for your honestly.

  13. blessed-with-3 Mar 03 at 4:13 pm Reply Reply

    I remember hating my 5th grade school photo. I showed it to my Dad and said, “I hate this picture! I look so fat.” He responded, “Pictures don’t lie.” 30 years later, I still remember that was the day I realized I was not good enough.

  14. Jennifer Mar 04 at 10:19 am Reply Reply

    It is a constant struggle. I was at my sister’s helping with laundry and pulled out a padded bra for my 10 year old niece. I didn’t even know they made those at the time and couldn’t believe that she owned one. What message does that send to a girl?

    My daughter is 10 and a gymnast. She has the thighs and butt to prove it. She holds the pull up record at 2 schools now. I wonder when other kids will start commenting and how that will affect her. I hope they don’t tease her because of these things. She already asked me if she should shave her legs ( my niece started when she was 10) and I told her not to worry about it until middle school – 2 years away. I hope it holds up and that she doesn’t feel pressure from all the other girls shaving there legs at 10. Crazy! It is so hard to protect them and be a good influence and make them love themselves.

  15. Erin Mar 04 at 12:23 pm Reply Reply

    While I don’t think I ever had an eating disorder, I was a dancer and would spend six hours a day in a leotard. Staring at myself in a leotard in a mirror definitely made me nitpick. I have to say I never observed my mom talk badly about her own body or ours and none of us (there are 6 children) have a weird relationship with food. However in Highschool for “fun” my friends and I used to see who could go the longest without food. Weird game. I thought it was hilarious at the time.

  16. Samantha Mar 05 at 6:44 am Reply Reply

    I have just finished helping my mother declutter her house and I found photos of myself from 1996. I was 19. I looked at those photos and I was so skinny! I remember spending a lot of time back then worrying about how fat I was. Being constantly told by my father and brother that I was a little chunky certainly never helped. 15 years later, 15 kilos later, I would love to turn back the clock and slap my 19 year old self upside the head and tell her to enjoy herself.

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