Misguided attempts at prevention for parents
One of the semi-implicit goals of ED Awareness Week is preventing eating disorders. Some of this information is geared towards sufferers themselves, with tell-all stories of how awful eating disorders are so people will know better than to go down that road (I don’t think this works, sorry). Other information is geared towards parents.
Sometimes, this is a good thing. I don’t think my parents knew I was high risk for developing an ED because of my perfectionism, anxiety, and drivenness. Nor did they know to trust their instincts when I started restricting and was blissfully ignorant that anything more sinister might be going on. They didn’t know that an ED can distort a person’s ability to recognize that something is wrong. This type of information is really good and I would LOVE to see more of it.
Too bad that’s not what’s appearing this ED
Awareness Misinformation Week. Instead, we are treated to gems like:
On the surface, these articles don’t look all that bad. In fact, they sound awfully positive. Here’s a way to help parents help their kids! How could it possibly send the wrong message? Here’s how:
It subtly (or not-so-subtly) blames parents for their kid’s eating disorder. In the Forbes article, the author notes that
Parents lead by example. Unfortunately, parents can also forget how their actions, thoughts and words can impact the lives of their children. When it involves body image and eating behavior, this can be especially relevant. Krasner feels that parents need to be mindful of how they eat, their relationship with their own bodies, and the potential impact on their kids.
Which, well, yes. Of course parental actions can affect children. But it’s a big leap to take this to actually creating an eating disorder. The problem is that parents can’t give their children an eating disorder. It doesn’t work that way. Although the message seems to be positive, it has a subtle message of blame. If a kid has an eating disorder, their parents were vain and obsessed with food and weight. Sure, sometimes that’s true, but that doesn’t mean that this talk caused the ED or that if you have an ED, it means your parents permanently screwed you up.
It gives parents a false sense of security. People think that because their kid knows about nutrition, doesn’t obsess about his/her thighs, or watched that Oprah show on how bad EDs were, that they won’t develop an ED. Theoretically, they know better.
But you can’t immunize your kid against an eating disorder so matter how much you love your butt. You can do everything right and your kid can still get sick.
It assumes body image problems are the driving cause of EDs. This isn’t even just a no. It’s a HELL NO. Yes, body image distortions were a factor in my ED, no doubt about it. But that wasn’t what was driving my behaviors. Research studies have shown that ED behaviors are driven by difficulties coping with and regulating emotions, NOT wanting to be thin. In fact, negative emotions make you feel shitty about your body. So is body image the cause of the ED or simply a symptom of the underlying depression and anxiety?
It conflates dieting with eating disorders. Another thing that pisses me off, also from the Forbes article (yep, they really got this one wrong!):
Based on more recent data, eating disorders are not only becoming more prevalent, but are also being noted in younger children. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, nearly 80% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being overweight.
While many factors contribute to the appearance and development of eating disorders, a mother’s attitude regarding body image significantly influences how children view themselves. One analysis found that a mom’s concerns about weight are actually the third leading cause of body image problems in adolescents and girls who believed their mothers wanted them to be thin and were two to three times more likely to worry about their weight. However, body image concerns aren’t just found in girls: a study from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2013 noted that close to 18% of teen boys in their study were “extremely concerned” about their bodies.
In fact, casually discussing diet plans or describing a desire to lose weight when you are with teens or children can negatively influence your child’s body image.
And this has precisely what to do with eating disorders?
It’s stuck in a century-old understanding of EDs. Take this little gem from the Forbes article:
The early speculation, based more on early psychoanalytic models, had to do with the concept of food as nourishment.
“Some of this psychosocial understanding is related to behavioral concepts such as the role of attachment– rooted in “mother’s milk”, Krasner explained. “This primordial understanding is the role food plays in a relational understanding of eating disorders in the family”.
As Krasner describes, early hypotheses of the pathogenesis of eating disorders related to difficulties between parents as it pertained to “mothers milk”: giving love, receiving love, sharing in food, sharing in food-related celebrations.”
I just…what? Has either the author or the so-called expert read any of the literature on eating disorders in the past decade? This is backwards, pig-headed outdated CRAP.
Perhaps Laura Collins says it best:
In fact, parents do not cause nor is there evidence we can prevent eating disorders. While the vapid bullet points about what parents should do are all quite true, they are true just because they are good parenting, not because they have anything to do with eating disorders.
An eating disorder diagnosis tells us nothing about how the patient was raised. Period.
The phrase “Parents lead by example” should never, ever, ever be used or implied when talking about eating disorders. This has to stop.
Imagine if you will that an article about cancer awareness gave a list of basic hygiene tips for parents, implying that cancer was a sign of lax hand washing. Imagine that early signs of cancer were treated as lightly as that you should “seriously consider” seeing a doctor?
Eating disorders are not a problem with “body image.” They are not treated, or prevented, with normal parenting. If you suspect an eating disorder ACT NOW.