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Articles: Our Daughters (long)

What are we doing to our Daughters?

In a culture of stick-thin models, our young adolescents are embarking on a dangerous path of dieting, bingeing, and purging. Here is how to tell your daughter is at risk, as well as tips and exercises to help improve body-image in your household.

The Statistics:

Sadly, the statistics speak for themselves: 80-90% of adult women dislike their bodies. 15% of women say they would sacrifice more than five years of their lives to be thinner, while 24% say they would sacrifice up to three years of their life.

We have passed this pathological dissatisfaction onto our daughters: 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, 78% of 18-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies, and the number one wish of girls 11-17 years old is to lose weight. 51% of 9 and 10 year-old girls feel better about themselves when dieting, and 9% of 9-year-olds have vomited to lose weight. [i]

Eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness in adolescent girls, and have the highest death rate of any mental illness. [ii] Research suggests that approximately 1% of female adolescents have anorexia, while 4% of college-age women have bulimia. 50% of people who have been anorexic develop bulimia or bulimic patterns.

Disordered eating often begins as a simple diet. More than half of teenage girls are, or think they should be, on a diet. 91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting. Unfortunately, studies show unequivocally that most diets don't work. 95% of dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years. [iv]

35% of "normal dieters" progress to pathological dieting. Of these, 20-25% progress to partial of full-syndrome eating disorders. [v]

Intense body dissatisfaction and disordered eating have been steadily increasing over time, with anorexia increasing each decade since 1930, and the incidence of bulimia tripling between 1988 and 1993.

The chances are good that your daughter is struggling with her body image. Adolescence is an incredibly formative time in terms of self-esteem and body acceptance. A positive body-image cultivated during this time will serve her throughout her life, while a negative body image can take years to overcome.

How can you tell if your daughter is struggling with her body image? Here are some sure-fired signs:  

  • Going on a diet
  • Obsessing about food choices
  • Restricting her food intake and then eating compulsively
  • Changes in her eating pattern or exercise regimes
  • Reducing or limiting her social time in favor of exercise
  • Avoiding social interaction that involves food or meal times
  • Voicing dissatisfaction with her appearance
  • Obsessing about a particular body part
  • Comparing herself to her peers and feeling deficient

The fact is that if you are not proactive in affirming your daughter's natural beauty and self-worth, chances are she will be seduced by the cultural lies that tell her she is not quite good enough. This negative body image and disordered eating can cause tremendous strain on your daughter's well-being. When she is not feeling good about herself, her energy, her enthusiasm, and her vitality can seem to disappear, clouded over by anxiety about her body weight and her appearance. Your daughter may become withdrawn as her vibrancy is stifled by body-image concerns.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to help. Regardless of your daughter's age, you can help her to cultivate a positive body-image and healthy self-esteem.

  • Become an example: When you improve your own body image and eliminate negative body-talk, this will dramatically help your child.
  • Discuss the concept of beauty with your child - teach them to recognize beauty in people of all different shapes, sizes, ages, and ethnicities
  • Encourage healthy lifestyle choices, but avoid suggesting that your child should look a specific way or be a certain weight or size
  • If your child is exposed to beauty magazines and television shows, make sure you talk about body image.  Let them know that the images in magazines aren't real; they have been touched-up and air-brushed.
  • Let your child know that you love her exactly how she is, no matter what
  • Teach your child to be grateful for exactly who she is.  If you are religious, you can teach her the following prayer: 'thank you God for making me just the way I am.?  If you are not religious, you can simply teach her to repeat this phrase to herself, acknowledging all the great characteristics she has, physically, mentally, and emotionally. 
  • Teach her to be conscious about her thoughts: negative thoughts and feelings can have a negative effect on her well-being, whereas positive thoughts and emotions have the power to transform for the better.

Ultimately, body-image struggles and disordered eating are a cry for help. They are often a way for adolescents to avoid coping with difficult emotions and manage the stresses of life. Teaching your kids important skills for stress management and emotional intelligence can also help them develop healthy self-esteem and body-image.

  • Be there for your child!  Take the time to learn about her friendships, struggles, and triumphs.  This will allow you to provide guidance as appropriate, as well as catch behavior changes when they occur.
  • Encourage conscious communication.  Techniques such as Marshall Rosenberg's Non-violent Communication can help your adolescent to understand and communicate her needs, wants, and desires.
  • Encourage mind-body centering activities such as yoga and meditation.  Numerous studies show the health benefits of meditation.  Learning to meditate will help your daughter reduce her stress and increase her ability to navigate the challenges of adolescent life.

Note: Although this article focuses on young women, men are not immune from eating disorders. If you suspect that your adolescent male is suffering from negative body image, the same principles apply.

  For more information on body image, eating disorders, and personal empowerment please visit Sarah Maria's web site at www.breakfreebeauty.com.

[i] Body Wars: Making Peace with Women's Bodies, Margo Maine, PhD, Gurze Books, 2000

[ii] Adolescent Medicine Committee, Canadian Paediatric Society. Eating Disorders in adolescents: principles of diagnosis and treatment. Paediatrics and Child Health 1998; 3(3) 189-92. Reaffirmed January 2001.

[iii] Anred: Eating Disorders Statistics: http://www.anred.com/stats.html

[iv] Grodstein, F., Levine, R., Spencer, T. Colditz, G.A., Stampfer, M.J. (1996). Three-year follow-up of participants in a commercial weight-loss program: can you keep it off? Archives of Internal Medicine. 156 (12), 1302.

[v] Shisslak, C.M., Crago, M., & Estes, L.S., (1995). The spectrum of eating disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18 (3), 209-219.

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