The holidays are a time of togetherness for family and friends. They bring a certain warmth of sharing love and memories, often coupled with catching up with loved ones who have been away for some time. The holiday season is also filled with food, drinks, and more food — another way that families show and share love. What if you start to notice behaviors with a loved one that are abnormal or self-destructive? I recently read an article by the Huffington Post entitled Parents are the First Line of Defense Against Eating Disorders in College Freshmen. This article gives helpful tips for noticeable signs that your college freshman may have developed an eating disorder after their first semester away from home.
Going away to college can be a perfect storm for eating disorder development: the child’s first taste of freedom and choice, the endless array of dorm food and late night pizza runs, the desire to fit in with new friends through food, drinking, and overindulgence. In the article, some of the signs are noted as: a noticeable weight loss, a withdrawal from family and friends, and over-concern with meal preparation, discussing that college is very stressful or anxiety-producing, and excessive exercise. While one or two of these symptoms might not necessarily mean that an eating disorder is present, these can be signs to keep in mind and notice if they intensify or inhibit the student’s life.
So, say you are concerned about a loved one’s behavior and mood changes and worry that he or she might be developing an eating disorder? How do you approach them so that the disorder doesn’t get worse and he or she might seek out help? This is a very tricky and touchy area, as eating disorders such as bulimia and binge eating disorder are plagued with feelings of guilt and shame and often are kept in a place of denial. Anorexia nervosa is also difficult to approach due to the rigidly-controlling and overwhelming feelings that this disorder might inflict on the loved one.
Here are a few tips for trying to show you care about a loved one who might have an eating disorder or body image struggles; I found many helpful hints in the book Good Girls Don’t Get Fat by Robyn J.A. Silverman, PhD which is a very powerful book about “how weight obsession is messing up our girls and how we can help them thrive despite it”.
1.) Your teenage daughter stands in front of the mirror and says she is ‘ugly and fat’, pointing out the flaws in her thighs and waist. What do you say? “I think you have a beautiful body. Think of all of the amazing things that it does for you: ride your bike, play soccer, dance, run, jump. When I look at your body I see a body that is open to a whole world of exciting possibilities.” Try to re-direct the focus away from negative thoughts about the body towards positive, accepting, and hopeful thoughts about the amazing capabilities of our bodies.
2.) Do you notice your daughter or son starting to control food and avoid certain types of food due to potential weight gain? What can you do? Model for him or her a positive relationship with food and your body. Try out many types of foods and express how delicious they taste. Love food for the energy it provides, for the way that it makes your body feel. Be adventurous, be brave. Treat your body with kindness by exercising, eating intuitively, and not worrying about how much or what type of food you are eating. Your children will notice this body-acceptance and hopefully adopt it themselves.
3.) You are a father and are noticing your daughter comparing herself to others, not ‘measuring up’, and starting to refuse food so as to lose weight. What do you do? Compliment her for things about her that are amazing and are not tied to appearance or weight. Help her see her strengths in writing, sports, or theatre without using the way she looks as a defining component. Tell her she is beautiful and remind her of this often. Model a safe, secure, and loving environment so that she can feel okay to be just who she is.
4.) Your daughter does not make the volleyball team, feeling excluded and ‘not good enough’. She begins to isolate herself and work out in her room for several hours a day in order to ‘get in better shape’. What do you do? Perhaps you had an experience in school where you felt rejected or that you didn’t measure up to the standard. Share that experience with your child, show her that it is a normal, if painful, growing up experience, and that she thrives in many other areas. Help her understand how you got through that experience, what you learned from it, and that you are always there to talk with her. Help her to channel that energy into self-esteem building ways, such as joining a yoga class or volunteering at an animal shelter.
5.) You notice large quantities of food disappearing and that your partner has little energy, significant mood swings, and wants to be alone a lot. What do you do? Don’t confront her right away, but try to spend more time with her where food is involved: cook together, eat together, and talk without distraction (like tv or computer) while sharing a meal. Don’t criticize her food choices or amounts. Show her that you care but offering to spend time doing her favorites activities. If she is isolating, invite her to watch your favorite television show together. Create a positive, safe, and nurturing environment and model healthy eating habits to her. Offer yourself as someone she can talk to and not be judged. She will do so when she is ready. Also secure support for yourself: go to therapy, talk with loved ones, do research.
Struggling with an eating disorder or body image issues is devastating for the loved one as well as her family and friends. The more that this is talked about and normalized, the less hidden and shaming it will be. There is always hope, and there is always a time and space for recovery.
What does recovery mean to you? If you have struggled with an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder or if you struggle with body image issues, you may think about the term ‘recovery’ often. My own recovery from bulimia was not a straight, neat line. It went up and down and every which way before I finally secured a lasting and healthy recovery. As the year 2011 draws to an end, I am reflective about what the start of a new year brings to us in terms of self-care and intuitive healing.
A new year brings a fresh start, or the possibility of one. I find this to be hopeful, but I also am worried about the message that the holidays can send to those struggling with eating and weight issues (and even to those who aren’t). We are a ‘diet-minded society’ in the United States and I find that this can be harmful to those who are striving to create a unique and personal sense of inner peace with food. I heard an advertisement on the radio the other day that said something like “Indulge now, because you know that there will only be celery sticks after the new year”. This persuasive advertising was meant to sell me some type of food that tastes “really good” but is “really bad” for me — and then it kicks in a nice helping of guilt at the end. Does expecting to feel guilty and needing to ‘compensate’ for eating delicious food lead to a balanced relationship with food? I am struggling with the message that this concept sends to us all.
So, what does a balanced and healthy recovery mean to you? I want to be careful to not fall into the dominant mindset that suggests a new year’s resolution should be “to recover”; don’t get me wrong, I think that embracing recovery, if it is the right time for you to do so, can be a life-changing commitment. However, feeling forced to do so, or guilt-tripped into it, as advertisements want us to feel, is not the way to a lasting and comprehensive recovery from bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating disorder. The new year is simply a new opportunity to make a change, to know that your life is worth it, that you deserve to live free of eating disorders and in peace with yourself. Recovery must come from within you. Only you can decide when and how you want your recovery from eating disorders to be.
For me, the end of the year is a time of reflection, goal-setting, and personal development. I have been practicing this for many years, all the way through my own recovery and beyond. If you or someone you know is contemplating making a stride towards recovery, I encourage you to embrace some of these same practices. Here are a few questions to set your recovery wheels in motion:
-Why choose recovery now? What do you have to gain? What do you have to lose?
-What risks are involved in choosing recovery from an eating disorder?
-What fears do you have about recovery? (weight gain, uncomfortable feelings, etc.) What hopes do you have about recovery? (positive thoughts, self-acceptance, healthy relationship with food, etc.)
-What support systems do you have available to you? Who can help you? (more on this below)
-Draw a picture or write a short story about what your life could be like if you lived in freedom from the eating disorder. Who are you and what are your strengths?
-How will you know when you have made some steps towards helping yourself? What will be different?
Sitting down with a pen and paper (or a computer) and really concentrating on these questions can give you a sense of direction and can bring some clarity towards your motivations for change. Sometimes you may only feel in 5% of yourself that you want to recovery. That is okay. Know where you stand today and think about some goals (even if some feel far-fetched right now!) to help yourself start to picture what your life would be like without guilt, shame, and the confinement of an eating disorder. You deserve this freedom!
I’m in a “you are beautiful” type of space today. It feels like 99.8% of the news and articles I come across every day are about negative messages that we are sent about ourselves, our bodies, and what it means to be beautiful. Whether they are messages from the media telling us we “should” look a certain way, or if they are attacks on those messages themselves — it feels negative, negative, negative! How is one supposed to recover from bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating disorder if all that we encounter are negative messages. Puts me in a negative mood. And that’s right where the eating disorders want us to be! How about battling eating disorders and negative body image with love, acceptance, and hope?
I was inspired to write this post when someone I respect deeply shared this about her own recovery:
“I tried ending my own eating disorder with a lot of force, judgment, guilt tripping and punishment. We all know that drill. One day I woke up and decided to try gentleness instead. In that moment, my road to recovery was born. I found real strength through gentle self acceptance.”
The same day that she shared these words, I received a book I had ordered entitled Operation Beautiful: Transforming the Way You See Yourself One Post-It at a Time. Operation Beautiful is a movement started by Caitlin Boyle whose “mission is to post anonymous notes in public places for other women to find. The point is that WE ARE ALL BEAUTIFUL: you are enough…just the way you are!”. Leafing through the book and then checking out the website, I was inspired and empowered by the energy this project creates all over the world. Energy to love and accept ourselves and others, sending a message of peace, anonymously, not caring who you are. Imagine the power that a movement like this can have! There is no ulterior motive, no attempt to sell us anything, just a pure message that you are okay just as you are.
Here is an example of one of the messages left anonymously:
Join the movement! Leave an Operation Beautiful message in a bathroom or public place with a message of empowerment and self-acceptance. You could help someone who might be struggling with an eating disorder such as bulimia forget about the other messages they are sent (the hurtful ones) and focus on the amount of hope and change they can embody! If you see a post-it, send in a picture of it to OperationBeautiful.com, where it might be featured and where it could ever expand the amount of good that message can do.
Finally, my day of “you are beautiful” is complete with sharing this inspiring video about ANOTHER wonderful project called “The Body Image Project”.
Today you can join in spreading love and helping others find self-acceptance with knowing that they are beautiful inside and out!