I was writing quietly at my desk when suddenly I heard my 15-year-old daughter cry out. When I went to her, it was as if she had morphed into a 7-year-old. She looked demolished as she reached out for me.
"Mommy!" She cried out.
"What is it?" I asked anxiously.
"I'm fat! I can't fit into my jeans!" she said.
In the United States, we consider it the greatest sin, the greatest defeat, the greatest failure of a girl to be fat. Though we claim to value women for their smarts, their power, and their presence, everywhere you turn, evidence to the contrary is on display.
I sat down on the edge of my daughter's bed and placed my hand on her back. I could feel my heart beating and my hands shaking. An image of myself at her age popped into my head: At 15, getting on the scale was a terrifying experience, charged with meaning. I vividly remembered feeling desperate if the number on the scale had not budged—or worse, had gone up. After a disappointing weigh-in, feelings of self-hatred would consume me, and I'd often spend the day judging my entire young life by that number—and bingeing to soothe the pain.
As I wrote in my book Wide Open, my issues around food and body image originated from significant trauma during my childhood. Although my daughter had not been exposed to trauma, I still worried for her. It took me a good 10 years to unravel my impulses to use food and obsessive attempts to achieve the perfect body—I did not want my daughter to go through that same hell.
I managed to collect myself and put my thoughts in the present. I looked at my daughter, who was staring back at me with confused eyes—she hadn't seemed this vulnerable in years. I told her what I wished someone had told me many years ago:
"Sweetie, you are gorgeous, and you are perfect. Everyone needs to learn how to take good care of themselves and their body. I will help you through this."
Most teenage girls around age 14 or 15 have a hormone surge that prepares their bodies to be able to get pregnant. This can also portend a metabolism that makes it easier to put on fat—nature's way of ensuring a good baby-making environment.
I explained to my daughter that we'd need to work together to learn about nutrition and healthy choices in terms of food and exercise. The challenging part would be to resist the toxic message of our culture, which measures the success of women on how well we fit the mercurial and often insane cultural standards of beauty.
At 15, I started dieting. This turned into a cycle of starving myself, then bingeing, followed by compulsive exercising for hours. This negative pattern stopped only when I began to separate myself from the cultural obsession with controlling female bodies.
Reclaiming my body on my own terms was a wily journey filled with twists and turns. One of the tools I found was weight training. Although bodybuilding culture is also somewhat obsessive, it did have something I needed—it encouraged eating healthy foods and getting very strong. This dual focus slowly got me out of the negative pattern of bingeing.
I also worked diligently with a therapist over several years to decipher what caused a binge. To my surprise, triggers could range from having something wonderful happen to being bored. A binge could also be triggered by a self-hating thought like, "I am such a fat loser!"—something I would never say to a friend but was routinely saying to myself. Noticing and interrupting critical thoughts, a regular weight-training program that grounded me, and other positive habits like meditation or calling a good friend when I was down slowly replaced food.
A huge revelation for me in my 20s was realizing that I was replicating the way my parents treated me as a kid: neglecting myself, yelling at myself, and shoving my needs away. I needed to re-parent myself better. Accepting that I had to do the parenting for myself—which included setting up a positive community, learning to cook, and figuring out how to soothe myself when I was overwhelmed and afraid—was often challenging.
In this age, when even a presidential candidate can boast about predatory behavior that involves objectifying and groping women, women and girls are still at risk of ingesting the prevalent and demeaning beliefs about who we are. In Susan Faludi’s famous book Backlash, she talks about the insidious ways that women are tripped up to make them feel that they are inherently wrong.
Struggling with my own eating disorder, I felt that all my intelligence and life force energies were being used to simply stay afloat. That's a brilliant strategy to keep someone from getting ahead: Convince them that they are inherently wrong, then put the onus on them to fix themselves. But deciding to stuff ourselves with junk food as an act of rebellion does not solve the problem either. Neglecting our health does not make us strong—in body or spirit.
According to the National Eating Disorder Association:
- 42 percent of first- through third-grade girls want to be thinner.
- Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
- 35 to 57 percent of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives.
- Girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge as girls who don't diet.
With that in mind, here are a few do's and don'ts to help our daughters avoid disordered eating:
1. Don't ever say anything negative about your daughter's body.
I never say never, but I'm going to say it now: Never, never, never say anything negative about your daughter's body. Women and girls are deluged with messages from the media telling them how they should look, what they should eat, what they should wear, and how they should smell. Teaching and, more importantly, modeling behavior that shows your daughter she has agency and ownership of her body is tantamount to good health on all fronts—mental and physical.
2. Don't go on fad diets or encourage your daughter to go on fad diets.
3. Do learn about nutrition.
Michael Pollan's book is a good source. Also look at scientific journals, not literature from the diet or even the food industries. The billion-dollar diet industry is out to make money, not help people have a healthy body image. Healthy nutrition can be very simple.
4. Do separate exercise from diets and food plans.
Encourage exercise every day for the pure joy of it—not to burn calories or to be skinny.
5. Do help your child find ways to move her body that feel good.
Endorphins are a biochemical gift from nature. Exercise can aid in alleviating stress, anxiety, and depression. It's a natural high. A vigorous hike, yoga, or Pilates are exercise options that can promote body awareness, relaxation, and self-care.
6. Do love your own body with all its imperfections.
Be aware that your daughter is watching what you do—it can be easy to criticize your body. It's something women are trained to do—but striving for self-acceptance is a daily goal.
7. Do educate your daughter on how magazines, Instagram, and other media present images that don’t represent reality.
Real women have stretch marks, birthmarks, and cellulite.
8. Do encourage your daughter not to be ashamed to talk to you or to a doctor if they feel like they are obsessing about food or their body image.
It is important to teach our daughters that self-hatred and self-criticism are signals to ask for help. Not just the status quo.