According to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, more than 50% of teenager girls and 30% of teenage boys engage in unhealthy weight control behaviours as a result of distorted or negative self-image. Traditionally, teens have been bombarded with images from magazines, television but bring in the visuals from social media platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr we now face social trends such as “the thigh gap” and “the bikini bridge” which glamourize eating disorders.
Paula Galli is a certified nutritional practitioner, holistic nutritionist and life coach, whose recent book “Weighing Love” offers practical advice and lessons to help readers understand their sense of self. Paula has also taken her personal experience of suffering from an eating disorder. With her personal and professional experience she’s been helping others break the pattern of self-hate and take steps towards loving one’s body.
I had the opportunity to speak with Paula about the importance of understanding eating disorders and how we can help our children, and ourselves, foster a more positive body image.
At what age are you starting to notice eating disorders?
Paula: I have encountered eating disorders develop as young as nine years old. Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders take place outside of the stereotypical lens that an individual is either Anorexic or Bulimic. There are a spectrum of symptoms and behaviours that categorize someone as struggling with an eating disorder, without any indication through one’s physical appearance.
For example, when I was ten years old I began dieting. Though I didn’t necessarily have an eating disorder at this time, I began to look at food and my body through a very negative lens. I have seen this with many young children, who make comments about “bad” foods and the way their body looks.
Often we associate eating issues with girls but what’s going on with the boys?
Paula: Eating issues most certainly are associated with girls, but slowly this myth is being debunked. Boys, just like girls, deal with negative body image and low self-esteem, which are two root issues associated with eating disorders. However, their symptoms may not necessarily present themselves in the exact same fashion as it does with girls. From a vanity standpoint, the desire for boys to change their appearance and body size is about getting bigger, more muscular and stronger. This is often linked to the representations showcased through the media as what makes an attractive and desirable male. I have spoken to numerous males who admit that they never feel big enough and have chosen certain work out routines and food choices as a way to attain this idealized type of male figure.
It is important to note, for both girls and boys, that eating disorders do not just occur because of body image issues. For many individuals eating disorders take place as a means to have some sort of control in their life. Depending on an individual’s life, they may feel that their only form of control is through their food intake choices and exercise regime. On the other hand, numerous individuals struggling with an eating disorder have a lack of control around their food choices, which perfectly reflects their idea that they have no control in their lives.
Again, the deeper issues associated with eating disorder stem much further than what meets the eye. Thereis not one exact reason as to why they take place; it is a combination of factors.
As teens we’ve all gone through this concern with self-image but in this age of social networks how has that changed the landscape?
Paula: Before I answer this question, I would like you to think back to when you were a teenager. Now imagine your entire life was showcased on the Internet. Think about everyone you know, as well as celebrities you admire (who seem to have a “perfect life”) are all easily accessible to follow online and compare yourself to. How would you feel? I know for myself that this would have been, yet another factor, which could have lowered my self-esteem and increased my negative body image.
In today’s day and age, the rise of visual social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, certainly play a vital role in affecting someone’s self-esteem. Through these critical years where self-identity is still being formulated and impressions are heavily received, having the immediate access to social media outlets only perpetuates the notion that you have to “look a certain way” in order to be accepted. I feel that the pressure to be and look a certain way is only increasing with these forms of visual social networks.
What steps can parents take to talk with their teens (or pre-teens) about positive eating… without being preachy?
Paula: I would start with making things fun! Food is certainly something that has the ability to connect individuals together. Try having a weekly cooking night, where you all choose a new, healthy and (most importantly) fun recipe and make it together; trying new flavours and dishes as a family. By doing this as a family, you are not singling out your child in any way, which may make them feel as if you are being “preachy”. In turn, you are starting a new family tradition of food choices, food preparation and mealtimes. This is a good first step.
Once that seems normal and natural, why not open it up to adding in multiple new dinners, making snacks together or going grocery shopping together every other week? Ultimately, make sure to get your child involved, find out what types of foods they like and don’t like and the reasons why. Don’t forget to share with your child what you like and don’t enjoy too! The more you can do this together the less it will feel like you are telling them what to do or lecturing them.
Something that I do with my clients before we have a meal together, is ask them why they are eating. I say to them, “What is the reason upon which we need food? What is your intention behind eating?” By working through these types of questions, teens (pre-teens) can begin to look at food as a source of fuel, something that feeds their brain, muscles, heart, bones, organs and cells. Reminding them how lucky they are to be able to eat and feed their body and how it’s their responsibility to do so, as their body cannot feed itself, is also important! This will help break the calorie-in, calorie-out mentality and help them appreciate food for what it really does for our bodies and our lives.
If you show your children the importance of eating a wide variety of foods and your gratitude for it, they will adopt that behaviour naturally in time.
What are some signs of eating disorders should we be aware of in our kids?
Paula: There are numerous signs to be aware of, yet they do not necessarily mean your child has an eating disorder.
- If your child suddenly says they cannot eat certain foods or cut out certain food groups.
- If they begin to talk about calories.
- If they start making negative comments about their bodies.
- If they go to the washroom right after they eat and you hear noises.
*Important to note: This is not to say you should follow them into the washroom, because I have known parents to do this when they were suspecting that something was going on. Just be mindful.
- If you wake up the next morning and find empty containers of food in the garbage or leftovers are missing. This could be a sign that your child is binge-eating when you are not watching.
- If they are not able to eat the same way in public as they are at home, or in general.
- If they are weighing themselves on a scale daily.
- If they “need” to exercise every day and get very upset when they miss a workout.
- If they put on a lot of weight or lose a lot of weight in a short period of time.
Overall, get curious. I suggest the first thing to do is to ask your child why they have decided to speak differently about their body/food or have a adopted a new behaviour. Investigate a bit for yourself and see what their response is. If you still suspect something is going on and cannot get a straight answer, I would suggest you take them to speak with a professional.
Who are your favourite celebrity role models for teens?
Paula: I like Beyonce and Jennier Lawrence. I chose these powerful women, because each of them holds a unique strength and honesty about who they are. They also represent more “realistic” body types for women and have each shared their struggles and challenges about being a young female in the media, and in general.
Anything else you want parents to know?
Paula: I would recommend that parents pay attention to what their child is watching on television. Though the media isn’t the reason as to why eating disorders formulate, they are certainly a contributing factor. Showing your child ads like Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty and other clips, which present first hand, the way upon which Photoshop and airbrushing take place, may help break these unrealistic expectations, which they are bombarded with daily.
I would also suggest that you talk to your child about how they feel about themselves and their bodies. Encourage your child to say something nice about themselves, both internally and externally. By doing this you will start to shift their thinking and increase their self-esteem. Again, make it fun! At dinnertime go around the table and get everyone to name something they like about themselves, as well as what they are proud of themselves for that day. By doing it this way they, again, won’t feel singled out and will learn by watching you model positive self-esteem as well. This will also help increase your self-esteem! What a win-win!
Lastly, don’t be scared to talk to your chid about what is really going on. If they don’t give you an answer right away, be patient with them. If you feel that they are dealing with deep emotional self-esteem and body image issues, don’t just assume they will get over it on their own. Take action from a young age to seek out professional guidance from someone who is educated in this field. It may be easier for your child to open up and talk about these types of issues with someone who isn’t you. Don’t take this personally; just know that they may benefit from another listening ear.
You can find out more about Paula Galli and her latest Book “Weighing Love” here at this link www.paulagalli.com