Eating Disorders for Parents: Body Image and Self-Esteem

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Eating Disorders Awareness

Young people are constantly exposed to unrealistic standards in the media such as airbrushed images, skinny models, and overly muscular models, and thus may feel pressure to lose weight or look a certain way. Because of these pressures, many children, teens, and young adults develop poor body image and low self–esteem. Although it’s normal for young people to not feel completely content while their body is constantly changing, it’s important for your child to find ways to feel comfortable with their natural shape and size.

Body image and eating disorders are often perceived to be problems for girls and women, so there is some social stigma for boys and men who are dissatisfied with their bodies or engage in disordered eating behaviors. Generally, males report lower levels of body dissatisfaction than females, which could mean that boys are either more comfortable with their bodies than girls or less likely to admit when they are dissatisfied with how their bodies look. Although some males do report desire to lose weight and to be thin, males who are dissatisfied with their bodies often focus on muscle size, tone and definition, and maintaining low levels of body fat. The risk of eating disorder behaviors such as purging or binge eating are more common in certain sports that require weight restrictions such as wrestling, football, or gymnastics. One stereotype is that only gay males report body dissatisfaction or are at risk for eating disorders. Sexual minority males (for example: gay, bisexual, mostly heterosexual) are at greater risk for reporting some eating disorder behaviors, such as purging. However, sexual minority males may be more comfortable talking about their appearance concerns than heterosexual males and, therefore, may be more likely to seek out treatment. Nevertheless, because most males identify as heterosexual, the overwhelming majority of males who are dissatisfied with their bodies and have eating disorders are heterosexual.

Body distortion or dysmorphia: Body distortion is when people see their body shape, size, and appearance differently from what everyone else sees. Body distortion causes a person to over–focus on flaws or imperfections and feel insecure. Most people who struggle with an eating disorder worry about how they look and what people think of them and have body distortion issues that can be hard to change.

How can I support my child?

  • Buy clothes that your child likes and feels comfortable wearing and give away any clothes that make her/him feel self–conscious or uncomfortable.
  • Suggest relaxing activities such as taking a bath, listening to music, yoga, playing a game, singing, or meditating.
  • Remind your child that everyone’s body is different and that not everyone is meant to be the same shape or size.
  • Encourage your child to spend time with positive people with whom he/she feels completely comfortable around.

The therapist may suggest writing exercises and activities for your child to do, such as:

  • Make a list of accomplishments
  • Write down 10 things he/she likes about himself/herself (caring, responsible, funny, smart, creative etc.)
  • Write down things that he/she can do when feeling healthier (such as running, dancing, hiking, biking, etc.)
  • Write or journal about 5 or more body parts that he/she likes and why (ears, eyes, legs, teeth, hair, etc.)
  • Be critical of advertisements, magazines, and the media. Write a letter to a company if an ad is upsetting or hurtful.
  • Smile when looking in the mirror. It might feel funny at first, but after a while, many people begin to see themselves in a more positive way.
Myth: The media is the cause of all eating disorders.
Truth: The media’s constant focus on dieting, losing weight, being thin, or being muscular can contribute to an unhealthy obsession with food and weight, but whether or not someone develops an eating disorder has a lot to do with other factors too.