Disordered image issues have been with me since my childhood.
But I wasn’t the only one engaging in these mindsets.
When I was in fifth grade, during recess, my third grade teacher struck up a conversation with me. We had just returned from summer vacation, and, as children are prone to do, I had changed. Perhaps it was a growth spurt. Regardless, this teacher remarked, “Sheryle, you’ve slimmed down. Are you dieting?”
I was shocked by the question…and flattered.
By this time, I’d already started my dieting and self-rejection behaviors. I knew something was “wrong” with me as long as I was overweight. But hearing the validation from an adult—from one of my teachers, no less—gave it extra firepower. Now it had credence beyond my mother or miscellaneous family members who made comments about my overweight body. This feedback was from an objective “outsider,” after all. And she was an expert on children—a teacher. So, it must be true, right?
Autumn is typically when kids are starting new school years. Whether it’s elementary, high school, or college, young people often return to classes having undergone some kind of change or growth spurt. And yes, there may be some startling transformations.
As someone in recovery, I get quite uneasy as people make comments about physical appearance. It’s tough enough as an adult. But I get extremely nervous when an adult makes a comment about a child’s weight. Whether it’s an insult, a warning, or high praise, there’s still danger at the mention of the issue.
Kids do learn their value systems from the adults surrounding them. Family poses its own challenges, with their image estimations. Authority figures, like teachers and clergy, likewise teach powerful lessons on what is valuable, worth rejecting, and “right.” Never underestimate the power of those words/life lessons.
“I think….you still have no idea. The effect you can have.” ~ Suzanne Collins
And so, I’m including some pointers concerning children and their appearance:
1. Don’t comment on a child’s physical appearance. There’s no setting in which it’s appropriate. Kids need to be kids, free from the importance of a thin appearance.
2. Don’t criticize an overweight physical stature. You’re not an expert; you’re not a doctor. If there’s a legitimate health concern, deal with it in a health context, not in the context of your personal appearance opinions.
3. Don’t recommend dieting. Again, if there’s a legitimate health issue, work with trained doctors, nutritionists, and therapists to resolve it. But believing your own “fix it” plan of placing a child on a diet may do more harm than good. You could be setting that child up for a lifetime of negative self-esteem and body image issues.
4. Don’t praise the child for a thinner body; don’t compare the child with another child’s physique. Again, this is unhealthy. You’re sending a toxic message that the child is inferior and will not be “okay” unless and until he/she whittles down to the particular desired weight.
5. Do validate the child, as is. Let him/her know there’s nothing that can add or detract from their lovable natures, value, and uniqueness. The child is wonderful as is. Period. Therefore, teach this truth to your child as soon as he/she is old enough to understand.
You may think I’m overreacting, but believe me, one never knows who will respond to image comments through a dangerous eating disorder. Certain comments can be the triggering factor that launches a particular child into anorexia, bulimia, self-hatred, and suicidal tendencies.
Disordered body and eating issues are complex and tough enough to navigate in our distorted image culture today as adults. But children are vulnerable innocents. And so, we need everything in our arsenal to equip them with a healthy sense of self, as well as healthy lifestyle habits.
We are teaching them something. May none of us, then, teach them the prisons of life-threatening and soul-shattering disorder.
They deserve to never learn that lesson.