We need to teach children to be kind to their bodies, before it’s too late
Trigger warning: The following blog contains discussions of eating disorders, body dysmorphia and fatphobia, which some readers may find distressing.
I had a conversation with a mother in a supermarket recently, and I haven’t been able to shake it from my mind.
She was panicking in the milk aisle, unable to find semi-skimmed green-top milk.
When I asked if she was okay, she told me it had to be green, because her daughter would not drink whole blue-top milk.
Alas, she had to settle for the blue, telling me she keeps a spare green bottle top back at home to swap with the blue, just in case.
“My daughter has anorexia,” she said.
I was suddenly hit with a wave of emotions. I had merely seen this woman buy a pint of milk, but I somehow immediately felt all of her pain and knew exactly what she and her daughter were going through.
She proceeded to tell me the story of her daughter’s eating disorder, which developed as a result of fatphobic bullying in primary school.
Her daughter was just nine years old when classmates started making fun of her weight and commenting on what was in her packed lunch.
Before long, she was skipping meals.
That was three years ago and now aged 12, her daughter recently spent time in hospital after not eating for a month.
She told me the devastation her daughter’s illness has brought upon their whole family, and how helpless she feels in just wanting her to get better.
I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to hug someone quite so much in my life.
Hearing this mother tell me her and her young daughter’s story not only shattered my heart, but it was all the more horrific because it was also mine.
I have been the child sobbing to my parents about not being able to eat.
I have disrupted my family’s lives for hospital visits.
I have had panic attacks in supermarkets because foods I considered ‘safe’ weren’t available.
I was also seven years old when I started obsessing over my weight and developed an eating disorder at 12. Now aged 22, I feel so deflated and despondent knowing children are still enduring traumatic relationships with food and their bodies, and being dragged through the mud of diet culture by society just as I was 10 years ago.
I am a journalist and mental health writer. I advocate for equal access to treatment for eating disorders and share my own story to remind others they aren’t alone in their struggles. I love what I do, but I shouldn’t have to do it. However, mental health activists like myself will have to continue screaming and shouting unless things improve.
We owe children so much more than a world that too often encourages self-hate, forces impossible beauty standards upon them, and promotes restrictive eating habits.
Learning that this poor girl was essentially bullied into under-eating gave me all the proof I needed that, if we do not change how we speak to children about their bodies, and instead continue perpetuating diet culture, then children will grow up thinking there’s something wrong with how they look.
When a seven-year-old feels so unworthy that she stops eating, there is a major problem that should force society to look at its reflection and question how it allowed eating disorder culture to thrive to this extent.
It’s very easy to get wrapped up in social media and to believe the progress we see online is everywhere. But the reality is, we live in bubbles online. We only follow people whose content we want to see and technically create an echo chamber of the ideas and beliefs we hold personally. We follow people who make us feel good and like pages that reassure us that the world is evolving the way we want it to.
However, although there may be, for example, more size-inclusive clothing brands, more plus-size models walking down runways, more conversation around the futility of diets and the importance of body positivity… it feels like too much energy is spent healing those who have already been chewed up and spat back out by the demons of diet culture, rather than preventing the harm from ever happening to young people in the first place.
Children shouldn’t have to wait until their 30s to overcome completely destructive attitudes towards food. They shouldn’t have to struggle for years before they learn that, actually, eating cake doesn’t make you a terrible person destined to burn in hell — which is what I thought for so many years.
Young girls shouldn’t have to develop eating disorders before they are taught that they don’t have to look a certain way in order to be accepted.
Fat kids shouldn’t have to sink into a deep pit of self-hatred and endure years of body shaming and bullying before they learn that beauty doesn’t have a weight limit and they are worthy of respect, regardless of body size.
All kids need to know that to be ‘fat’ is not to be lesser. But they will not so long as the stigma surrounding fatness remains. The word ‘fat’ is stigmatised in a way that ‘thin’ and ‘skinny’ never are, which are frequently used as compliments. By normalising and destigmatising the concept of fatness, within and beyond conversations about diet, eating, and mental health, we can save youngsters years of abuse as the word ‘fat’ is disarmed and is no longer an insult to hurl across the playground.
We have an eating disorder epidemic, one that will continue unless we start putting the work in at the very bottom because, by the time children get to their 20s, the damage has been done and it’s a lot harder to rewire someone’s brain to think a different way to what they’ve been taught for years. It’s much more difficult to convince someone who has hated their body since childhood to love themselves as they are than it is to teach a carefree, fun-loving child who has not yet been swept up by the diet culture storm that there is never anything wrong with their body.
I’m in disbelief and horror that we ever reached a point where children consider skipping meals for weight loss because they believe it will make them more desirable to their peers and successful in the future. The risk is, they won’t have a future at all.
So, what do we do? How do we start convincing children that they need to eat and look after their bodies, especially when many adults don’t practise what they preach?
Well, regardless of our own experiences with eating disorders and views on our own self-worth, we have a duty of care for children.
Are there times when I engage in eating disorder behaviours? Forgo meals? Compensate with exercise? Talk badly about my body? Yes. But I also have an 11-year-old step-sister, and I wouldn’t dream of doing such things around her, because I’m aware of how easily my own brain internalised diet culture when I was little.
I was a sponge who absorbed every hateful comment my grandma made about her big bum, every remark my aunties made about ‘cheating’ on their diets for eating bread, and every joke made by my teachers at fat people’s expense.
And I have yet to be squeezed out. It’s all still in here.
Not only do we need to start teaching children the importance of nourishment and being kind to their bodies, we need to ensure they understand that how their body looks is by far the least important aspect of life. We need to make sure they don’t equate health to thinness or assume a fat person even needs to justify their ‘health’ in order to be treated with respect.
We are still drilling into young girls that being thin will make them more successful and that ‘beautiful’ is the highest compliment they can receive. We are still teaching young boys that to be strong and athletic is to be cool and powerful.
What we actually need to be doing is encouraging children’s hobbies and passions, watering their interests and helping them pursue what brings them joy. We need to teach children that their weight is not a limiting factor; all that matters is these young children are happy and that they are healthy. Weight is just one part of that.
We need to teach children that they have brilliant, imaginative minds and they are capable of so much.
I have a vivid memory of my eating disorder outpatient nurse congratulating me for eating a packet of crisps as a 19-year-old. I cried. I cried because that was the first time in my life that I had heard crisps being talked about in a positive way. No one had ever mentioned crisps to me before without demonising them, but this wonderful nurse reminded me that crisps are carbohydrates, and they are a form of energy. They also just taste really good and eating crisps when you are hungry is always better than eating nothing at all.
It shouldn’t have taken me two decades to understand that eating a packet of crisps is not a sin, and I don’t want another child to go through that.
I want children to be unapologetically hungry and to eat without shame. I want children to say nice things about their bodies and never feel conceited or embarrassed. I want children to have healthy relationships with food and with their bodies so they don’t require appointments with therapists, nurses and dietitians in the future to help them rebuild the undernourished relationships between their bodies, minds, and food.
Every day now, I think about the 12-year-old girl and her mother, wondering how her family are doing and whether she’s getting better. I doubt I’ll ever find out but if somehow she ends up reading this, I want her to know it’s okay to drink blue-top milk.