The 5th-11th of September is Body Image and Eating Disorders Awareness Week. These two topics are often misunderstood, so what better time to discuss exactly what they are?
Body image refers to the attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions we have of our own body. Whilst often a heightened concern during adolescence, we also carry it into adulthood. Research shows accepting and respecting our bodies (without always loving them!) is associated with higher self-esteem, self-acceptance, and an overall healthier outlook. In contrast, negative body image is associated with a higher risk of mental health issues and the pursuit of extreme methods to change one’s body.
Eating disorders are changes in behaviour, thoughts, and attitudes towards food, eating, weight or body shape that have a detrimental impact on an individual. They affect approximately 9% of the population. Contrary to popular opinion, less than 6% of those with an eating disorder are underweight. Regardless of whether an individual is underweight or not, there can be serious, life-threatening effects; including damage to major organs, changes to the brain, reduced bone density and hormone irregularities/infertility.
Unfortunately, in our image conscious society, we often normalise or downplay unhelpful beliefs and attitudes. An eating disorder is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ nor a ‘cry for attention’. Most importantly, dieting is not a normal part of life. Causes are complex (a combination of genetics, personality traits, life events/experiences and previous engagement in dieting behaviour). But it is important to know eating disorders are not the fault of parents or the young person. They are however something to be taken seriously, ensuring those affected receive appropriate support as soon as possible.
What can I do?
Here are some suggestions for how families can support their children in this space:
- Encourage your child to view their body as a vessel that allows them to do things they enjoy.
- Expose your child to a range of body shapes.
- Encourage your child to follow their body cues, and to eat when they are hungry.
- Don’t put value judgements on foods; foods are not ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘junk’. Similarly, emphasise that what we eat does not reflect on us as a person.
- Eat family meals together as much as possible.
- Refrain from engaging in any talk regarding weight or dieting in front of your child.
- Support your child to be media literate- images on social media are often digitally altered and do not reflect reality.
- Foster positive self-esteem and encourage them to engage in activities they enjoy and feel accomplished in.
Olivia is an Educational and Developmental Psychologist who has worked in a range of settings, including schools, universities, the not-for-profit sector and private practice. She has substantial experience working with children, adolescents and their families, including completion of neurodevelopmental and learning assessments. Olivia has a special interest in eating disorders and is passionate about ensuring young people with this presentation receive appropriate and effective supports. Olivia strives to build warm and collaborative relationships with children, adolescents, parents and other professionals involved in a child’s life.