In my TEDx talk on healing from an eating disorder, which you can find below, I addressed a question I frequently hear after sharing my story: What was your lowest weight?
With that out of the way, viewers have expressed different curiosities. Numerous have been surprised by how young I was when I began having negative thoughts about my body: What happened to you to make you feel that way so young? One person put it more bluntly: Something terrible must have happened to you to cause that.
I understand where these responses come from. No 5-year-old should avoid wearing certain clothing for fear of appearing “chubby,” as I did, or that being any shape or size is negative or to be feared. But while there are unique aspects of all eating disorders, this aspect of my own experience is very, very common.
- Nearly half of kids in the U.S. in grades 1 – 3 wish they were thinner. — US Department of Health and Human Services
- About 80% of 10-year-olds have dieted at least once and/or fear “fatness.” — NEDA
- Over half of teen girls and one-third of teen boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as meal skipping, smoking or purging. – Neumark-Sztainer
- Girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge-eat as girls who don’t diet. — NEDA
- Over 35% of occasional dieting progresses into pathological dieting. Of these, 20-25% progress to eating disorders. — Shisslak, Crago & Estes
- A Journal of Abnormal Psychology study that followed 500 adolescent girls from age 8 to age 20 showed:
- 5.2% of the girls met criteria for DSM5 anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder.
- 13.2% of the girls exhibited nonspecific eating disorder symptoms by age 20.
Childhood trauma is a risk factor for eating disorders, but it was thankfully not my experience. I was raised in a loving family, with parents who loved and still love each other. I was not abused or neglected or criticized for my shape or size. On the contrary, my siblings and I were taught to follow our hearts and practice kindness. No one told me I was aesthetically flawed, fixated on my appearance or suggested that thinness was a goal I should strive for. I saw poor body image in people around me, as we all do, but far more powerful were the underlying causes—the reasons they, too, felt deficient.
Nothing needs to “happen to you” to bring poor body image on, other than living in a weight- and appearance- obsessed culture with narrow and unrealistic definitions of beauty—including that, particularly for women, our looks are tightly correlated with our worth.
If a girl aspires to lead a full, happy life, have a dream career and wonderful relationships, we’re taught, she’d better be “pretty.” Add any other eating disorder risk factors to the mix, and it’s a perfect storm.
As depressing as that may sound, there’s plenty we can do to change all of this. I believe it starts with ourselves, with exploring our own values and beliefs, minimizing negative self-talk and fat-shaming—especially around others, avoiding diets and other forms of unnecessary dietary restriction and working hard to present empowering examples for others. If we don’t decide to embrace ourselves and bodies on purpose, the world will decide for us, and that may not be pretty.
Lastly, don’t assume that young folks in your life have positive body image, even if they never say a single thing about disliking or focusing on their appearance. As I shared in my talk, I kept my own self-criticisms secret for years.
Here’s to lifting ourselves and others up on purpose, and learning to focus on what really matters. I promise, it’s worth every effort.
**If you’re struggling with disordered eating or poor body image, my heart goes out to you a zillion-fold. You’re not alone, and there is so much hope to be had. Feel free to drop me a note, if you could use some support, or call the National Eating Disorders Association confidential helpline.