Body Image, Eating Disorders & Parenting Daughters

Tue, 03/13/2012 - 08:42
Submitted by Anonymous

My 11.5 year old daughter told me over breakfast this morning that one of her best friend has started throwing her lunches away to make themselves thin... and so it begins.

I promptly emailed the school and suggested that social and personal studies on Fridays needs to cover eating disorders. I have no idea if that will help but at least it will plant the seed of understanding about these behaviours and their longterm consequences in the girls minds. 

Carlin wrote this week about Rhianna's Dad calling her fat and coincidentally, in my experience, all the women I've known with eating disorders had father's who had very high expectations and were heavily critical of their daughter's when they failed to meet them. I'm not claiming that as a universal truth but it is a link I have seen personally. My daughter's best friend has a father who pushes his daughter to the limit to be "his perfect little princess".

Of all the girls in the group she has to lie to her parents the most. They have no idea she's already kissed a boy with tongues many times or that she has smoked or on the other hand that she has stopped eating her lunches so she can have the perfect ballerina** physique her father is so proud of. This image of perfection they're demanding of her is slowly killing her internal sources of self esteem and forcing it to be externalised in her father's expectations. Inside she knows she is not the perfect image he has of her but she is terrified that her father won't love her if she does not live up to his expectations. So, she rebels against it in secret and then over-compensates filling his "good girl ballerina" facade at the expense of her own choices about who she wants to be. 

A lot of folks criticise the sentiment of being a friend to your child, and to try and be a peer is absurd, but there has to be an element of friendship in parenting to this stretch from child to adult (12 to 18), or at least ensure there is a friendly adult in thier life they can talk too. The boundaries of childhood need to be readjusted and based more apon a reasoned discussion, a collaborative understanding rather than arbitrary rules and punishment. A parent must not live vicariously through our often delusional hopes that our children would be exceptional prodigies if only we pushed them HARD enough.

It's important to cultivate opportunities for them and encourage them to show commitment to their goals but not to set their goals and force their commitment upon them. I loath the way parents cry shame upon themselves when there child isn't what they wanted it to be as an adult. What gave you the right to dictate their future? You do not own this person. The only hope you should have is that they will gladly share their own adult journey with you. Our feelings of propriety and control over our children, misguided in the first place really, need to relinquish still further slowly over adolescence. They do for boys but often not as easily for girls, if at all in some cases. Ultimately, I feel this plays a large part in self esteem development and in the general perception in our culture that women are public property to be protected and controlled from their own autonomous desires and ambitions.  

Interestingly I get told by some people I am too hard on my daughter. I have never indulged fussy eating for example. If you don't eat what I put in front of you you don't get fed. Others still tell me I am too soft, as I allow my child to dress as she likes (from the clothes I buy her so there is still an appropriate boundary), wear make-up if she likes and colour her hair if she likes. It is her body and I am teaching her dominion over it but also discussing the external reactions to dress and appearance and what to expect. I think this is an important part of instilling in future women a sense of autonomy over their bodies. It is all too easy as a parent of teen girl to start using concern manipulatively, to start exerting control with shaming their bodies, their dress, their words, their choices because of "the scary world out there". You need to look your best and most appealing to be accepted and be a very good chaste girl to be safe and still adored by your father. 

Hmmm... I'm rambling due to ruminating as I write rather than beforehand. I'd be very interested in people's feed back.  

**I suspect we all know ballet and anorexia go hand in hand due to the abhorent demands of weight loss in the industry as in fashion modeling, not to mention it is a dance that seeks to hide the massive leg strength of the female in a facade of 'daintiness', 'fragility' and 'grace') 

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I just hope you respect your

Tue, 03/13/2012 - 10:43
Mel (not verified)

I just hope you respect your daughter's culinary likes/dislikes. I was a fussy eater by nature but was forced to eat "like a normal child", for my own good as I was repeatedly told, and the damage still lingers, as even though I have not developed any eating disorders, I am extremely unadventurous about food and wary of new tastes.
Forcing anyone to eat food they hate is abuse.


Tue, 03/13/2012 - 21:57
Liandra Dahl (not verified)

Almost all children try and turn the dinner table into a battle ground at some point in their development, it's natural as they seek more autonomy. It's best not to indulge it because to do so perpetuates fussy eaters, it is also best not to abuse it because it creates problems also.
Children will reject unfamiliar tastes (unless they're sweet) and you cannot know what they like or dislike until they have tried it at least five times. If my daughter has tried something five times, on five different occasions and still dislikes it then she no longer has to eat it. 

It turns out my daughter has the most sophisticated palate of all of her friends now and she thanks me for it. Several of her friends who were indulged as fussy eater have been treated medically for malnutrition and vitmin deficiency.  

A few thoughts on Ballet and Eating Disorders...

Wed, 03/14/2012 - 01:52
Pia Salter (not verified)

Great article, Liandra! Thank you so much!
My parents were very good at teaching me to not be picky when I was little, but the amount of stress my ballet put on me as I grew older and, as it turned out, just a little bit curvier than the ideal, drove me to start dieting last year. I didn't really need to, and now I'm struggling to recover from disordered eating habits I picked up during that time. 

There is one facet to the case of the anorexic ballerina that you didn't give much attention to: Often, teachers and directors put incredible pressure on their dancers to look a certain way. Girls who don't conform usually feel uncomfortable and quit. I'm lucky; my studio is very varied and we take girls of all sizes. Nevertheless, I have friends in other studios who have been told to lose weight when they were already underweight for their height and frame. Even in a studio like mine, we have had a few girls develop anorexia or other disorders because they wanted specific lead roles or thought they were too heavy for their partners. (I'll confess, the last was the major reason behind my own issues. Instead of trusting my partner, I tried to take matters into my own hands.) But regardless of my personal story, certain schools of ballet are very hard on their students. Perhaps the girl in your article is also receiving pressure from there.

I also wanted to say: I have received very little pressure from my father. On the contrary, he tells me that I try too hard and am going to burn out or hurt myself if I don't relax sometimes. He's one of my best friends. In my family, a bit of pressure comes from my mother, but mostly it comes from myself. Girls who develop eating disorders are often unnecessarily critical of themselves. Since childhood, I've been my worst critic. I brought my food-problems onto myself through thinking I was too heavy, and then projecting this inadequacy onto my partner as well, thinking he was too weak to lift me. (He wasn't.) Perhaps the girl you know is also going through a self-instigated complex? I don't know, I'm just throwing out ideas. I'm rambling too here, haha.

Anyway, thanks once again for the great article!

We don't consciously decide what food we like.

Wed, 03/14/2012 - 15:59

We couldn't on a whim decide to like a food we've always hated because it would still taste awful. Our body tells us what it needs. But some kids develop a thing where out of all the food they like they'll only eat the food they like the most and as savoury food their body needs and tolerates can taste the most boring, they'll try it on and see if they can get strawberries and chocolate all the time.  So you have to exert a bit of discipline to get through that and find the food their "body" rejects or loves.

When it comes to dance I love!!!!! contemporary dance, that rejects the constraints of ballet both physical and it's one dimensional  lack of imagination and creativity. Choreographic imagination allows all kinds of physique to celebrate all kinds of movement. Graceful isn't all there is. There's powerful, dramatic, funny, horrific. 
Here's Chunky move with Mortal engine.

Raising a child is one of the

Thu, 03/15/2012 - 00:24
Ichiko (not verified)

Raising a child is one of the most difficult things in the world there is no manual. All I hope is that I raise my 3 year old son to be a respectful individual. My son will eat just about anything except pudding unless it's rice pudding (which I think is gross). And this is because I introduced spices and flavor to his palate when he was 2 months old. Starting with things like broccoli and avacado instead of bananas and apple sauce. I added garlic and curry and cinnamon to his foods instead of bland packaged foods. He enjoys a wide variety of foods and now still get sweets as long as hes eaten a healthy meal. I read before that countries like India where they is a lot of different spices in their diets have lower percentage of cancers and other diseases. I also read that it take a baby 14 tastes of something to actually decide if they like or dislike it. 14 tastes! And the average parent stops trying between 3 and 5 tastes!


Thu, 03/15/2012 - 05:11

I know, its irrelevant that I love the curves on your bellarina Li. But I do.

"The only hope you should

Thu, 04/12/2012 - 12:58
Kasini (not verified)

"The only hope you should have is that they will gladly share their own adult journey with you." That is exactly what I hope my children will choose as they get older.

BBC news report

Tue, 04/17/2012 - 12:33

Fathers and daughters

Tue, 08/27/2013 - 04:22
Tarski (not verified)

Lovely article, first of all, thank you!

It's true that fathers influence the body image of their daughters. My mother had nothing to do with my body image, as she never said anything demeaning to me about my body, but never said anything positive either. My father, however, regularly called me a 'cow', or a 'fatty cattle' when I was around 8 years old. Both of my siblings are athletic by nature, and I, on the other hand, am very feminine, and have always had meat on my bones. So, if we all stood in a line, I'd be the odd one out.

Of course, back then I just felt hurt, but didn't think anything about it. I didn't know I wasn't skinny... I never even thought about it... I was a pretty clueless child. But since then things changed. At 14 I was sexually assaulted by my father, and after that I slipped into a deep period of depression. I have many issues to work through still, and body image is one of those. When I was 20, he commented on my love handles. They were really small, but they were there. Even though I forgave him for what he did, and hold no grudges against him, he still induces fear and some instinctive sense of respect, because... I don't even know why. It's just the way it is. Soon after, my body became the main focus of my everyday life. I tried to restrict calories, but slipped and overate. I purged, but it was very unpleasant. I want to be skinny like my brother and sister, because then, somewhere deep in my mind, he wouldn't be calling me 'cattle', and there wouldn't be any reason for him or anyone else to touch me. And it's not just for someone else. I myself dislike my feminine body. I want to be thin. I don't feel like anyone is influencing me to think this way now. In other words, I am the experimental bunny of my own ideas, and not somebedy else's.
But then there's the other side of the coin: I love feminine beauty. I love Betty and Carlin for their openness. With all my heart I am thankful to Nature for creating women so curvy and soft and beautiful. And, honestly, in a different life I would have loved my body. Honestly, it feels like I'm missing out on good sex and the rest of the healthy stuff life offers, just because I can't get out of this distructive loop that started long ago.
So, to anyone who's reading, keep in check what you say or do around kids (girls as well as boys), especially be careful if you are a father. They just imprint everything in their memories and store it for later.

Fathers & Daughters

Tue, 08/27/2013 - 18:03
NorthLondon Housewife (not verified)

Thank you for the thoughtful article.

As the mother of 2 girls aged 15 & 13 I read it and some of the responses with interest and some sympathy. There is no right way to be a mother, no easily measurable critical success factors or other corporate speak. We just try our best and hope that aged 18 they're still alive, healthy, happy and still talking to us. Anything more is a bonus.

A friend with much older children once commented that the best thing (perhaps the only seriously important thing) a father could do for his daughters was to adore them, to truly love and respect them as they are, and to let them know that they are loved and adored just for being themselves.

To gift your children with a sense that they are entitled to love and respect is a wonderful thing.

At the time, it sounded as if their dad was getting off easily in the parenting bargain but now I'm not so sure.

The teenage years seem to be more about learning how to let go, how to trust my girls and let them make their own mistakes and learn from them whilst at the same time being their safety net. I thought it would be worse for me as their mother but it turns out that dad is hit hardest by the thought of all those risks out there waiting for his wonderful girls.

I'd be very interested in people's thoughts and ideas as to how best to navigate the coming years.


Wed, 08/28/2013 - 13:13

North London, a great comment. I have never had children, but I have brought other people's children into my home: two exchange students from Europe and foster children. The way you described your current parenting sounds very good to me. Teenagers want attention just as much as any six-year-old, they want to be heard, they want someone to care. They don't want someone who wants to control their every move and their every thought, someone who wants to live vicariously through them. All of the teens who lived here had big problems, and all they really wanted was love and attention. One piece of advice I do have for parents: help your children learn about the world, don't let them go into the world armed only with ignorance and naivete. That's what gets them into trouble they may have a hard time getting out of.

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