Eating Disorders and Body Image: How Can We Protect Our Children From The Pressures Of Modern Living?

Are Children Being Robbed of Their Childhood?

 

You may have noticed that eating disorders, such as bulimia, have hit the headlines again this week.

According to new research by UCL, the number of diagnosed eating disorders increased by 13% between 2003-2009. Interestingly, although girls and women remain most affected, the problem is increasing amongst boys and men too.

 

But are these findings really such a surprise?

You can’t discuss statistics such as these without taking into account modern society. In recent years the pace of life and change has accelerated to such as extent that it can leave us feeling overwhelmed, confused and even lost.

Celebrity culture is now firmly ingrained and our obsession with what the latest A-lister is doing or dieting shows no sign of going away. Consumerism is at an all time high and we’re surrounded by intense messages and influences, all cleverly designed to convince us that if only we had X, life would be great.

The prevailing cultural conversation values successful strong men and slim, sexy, beautiful women. And these stereotypical, idealised images are reinforced across media channels. And they have an impact on how people feel about themselves. The recent outpouring of disgust over comments made by Abercrombie & Fitch’s CEO reinforces this.

And then there’s our changing relationship and conversation with food. It’s so confusing. The media is packed with discussion about the problem of childhood obesity and how this has been influenced by our changing diet and lifestyle. BUT this is juxtaposed alongside the other extremes of anorexia and bulimia.

What’s more, body image and perceived beauty increasingly influences whether or not we feel accepted and valued by society – and this is a dangerous place to be – especially for our children because it can have a detrimental and damaging affect on their confidence and self-esteem.

 

So where does this leave the next generation?

I say it’s hard enough as an adult to navigate, interpret and organise all the information that bombards us on a daily basis. But what about our children?

I worry the standardised, “one-size-fits-all” definition of what’s valuable and worthy is seriously hindering the healthy development of a generation. And not just the way children look – but more importantly how they feel about themselves.

In turn, the influence and accessibility of the media has stripped away the space and freedom children traditionally enjoyed to explore, develop and discover who they really are. And instead, the sexualisation of young girls, our celebration of “get rich-quick” reality TV shows and intense focus on appearance means the innocence of childhood is rapidly vanishing. In turn, children are being forced to grow up far too quickly AND without the tools, positive role models and resources they need to cope and decipher the growing expectations society places on them.

There’s a risk children will become lost in confusion.  And the pressure to be perfect and live up to idealised stereotypes (which are largely unachievable) can lead to drastic measures – including bulimia, abuse of and addiction to alcohol, drugs and food.

 

Food is an enemy

There’s no question that eating disorders are complex and triggers will differ for each individual. That said there is some truth in the argument that they often start in response to an individual feeling somehow inadequate or not ‘good enough’. I was a successful international model and a bulimia sufferer back in my 20s. And the pressure I put on myself to stay slim and look a certain way triggered my battle with food.

Fast-forward 30 years and the environment is even more challenging. Modern diet, the explosion of convenience foods and the ready availability of unhealthy, sugary snacks and “eating on the go” have transformed the way we eat. Freshly prepared food is become more rare and obesity is on the rise. And because “fat” is in conflict with what society defines as beautiful, it can be the cause of ridicule, bullying and making someone feel they don’t belong and can transform food into the enemy.

 

What can be done?

Now it’s very easy to throw all blame at the media for the current rot. But to do so means we negate all sense of responsibility. And this is neither healthy nor justified. That’s because to place the blame on an external cause totally undermines the power you have as an individual.

You see, YOU can decide how to interpret the images and messages you see and hear. Each one of us has the choice about what we make those influences mean. You can choose to make them mean you’re not good enough – OR you can choose to reject them and discover and accept the truth that you’re perfect exactly as you are.

Humans aren’t designed to conform to a standardised ideal. Good grief, how boring would that make us! Instead each one of us is valuable simply because we’re unique. And in your uniqueness lie your special strengths and gifts you can use to live a life that you love.

 

A truly inspirational story:

Here’s a wonderful example of this message in reality. I was deeply moved when I read about Jacob Barnett and his mum Kristine. Jacob was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. “Experts” told his mum he would probably never speak and it would be a huge breakthrough if he could tie his own shoes. Kristine was understandably devastated by the news and for a time went along with the traditional therapy and treatment she was offered.

Then one day, she decided to do something different – she took Jacob under the stars, danced with him and entered his world – instead of trying to pull her son into society. This proved to be the start of a truly remarkable transformation. Kristine soon noticed Jacob had a passion for astronomy. She allowed him to do the things he loved and discovered the boy who would never talk had an IQ greater than Einstein. And now, at the age of 14, he’s studying a Masters Degree in Quantum Physics (and speaking).

Jacob’s mother talks powerfully about the importance of not trying to fix yourself so you fit into an “accepted” norm. Instead, focus on the things you’re truly good at. And in turn, this will set you free.

 

Your thoughts and beliefs define who you are

You can keep comparing yourself to societal norms, conclude you’re not good enough and then make that mean you’re not valuable.

OR you can choose to reject that rubbish and recognise there’s nothing you need to change to be valuable. You are perfect right here, right now.

I believe if adults can embrace this truth and value themselves and others irrespective of how we look, the impact will flood into our children. And that in turn will give children the space (and permission) to explore, discover and accept who they are as individuals too.

 

Confidence and body image comes from within

You don’t need an external force to validate you or tell you you’re good enough. Instead, look inside and appreciate the ‘Golden Buddha’ that’s always been hiding within.

 

Over to you…

Who do you think is to blame for the growing cases of eating disorders? What do you think should be done to help children gain confidence and self-esteem? Please let me know by leaving your comments below.

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Tom on May 24, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    Julie,
    This is a brilliant article and something that has really got me thinking. I’ve never had an eating disorder but the impact the outside world can have on anyone’s behaviour should never be underestimated.
    I have studied psychology (and continue to) for many years and being British and a bloke typically means I’m meant to ignore the link between what I think, how I feel and how it influences the way I behave (unless it means getting annoyed, angry and aggressive of course!!). But the reality we get positively and negatively influenced by the world around us.
    What I believe is that we are all 100% responsible for how we choose to think, feel and behave. No matter the circumstances. When we take 100% responsibility we’re the only ones that have the power to change.
    It’s daunting in some ways as there are no excuses anymore, but its incredibly powerful and gives us choice.
    Would love to know what you think!

  2. Stefano on May 25, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    very interesting Julie, thanks!

  3. John Di Carlo on May 25, 2013 at 7:53 pm

    Very perceptive post. I had never viewed bulimia (or autism) as part of such a universal picture.
    But of course, as Blake wrote over 200 years ago, we should all be able to see the world in a grain of sand. It is nothing new for people to deride those who do not conform to the norm, but you are absolutely correct in your contention that the media has managed to subliminally influence society that such a false norm is the ideal. Really also like your argument that the answer lies not in some collective attempt to change the media (which is not going to happen), but rather in the individual awakening to and using the power within each of us. Well done!!!

  4. Joanna Jones on June 17, 2013 at 9:47 am

    A well written piece that evokes much thought about this matter, especially as a parent!

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