Friday, June 24, 2011

kids and eating disorders

We're still in recovery mode over here after our trip to Norway where we stayed with my parents. -- Like depressed people, we crave rest and seek comfort in food (especially chocolate), gorging at every meal, adding dessert when we didn't used to.

One of the things that saddened me the most on our visit overseas, was to see Lilly's appetite evaporate so completely. And all the more in response to my parents' constant pestering at its lack of presence. She just turned three, but even so my mother had the nerve to suggest to Lilly she was on a diet when she wouldn't eat.

Adding pressure on kids to eat is in my opinion a sure way to lead them down the path of eating disorders. I never had an appetite at my parents' house with the constant tension and frequent eruption of fights during meals. In elementary school, I was the skinny quiet girl with glasses who wouldn't eat her packed lunch. The memory of throwing up over the dinner table while trying to force down the required amount of spoonfuls will never leave me.

When my body began to develop during puberty, it failed to grow long and lanky as my mother wished it would do. In turn, I found comfort in chocolate, and grew plumper. On and off dieting ensued through high school until university got the hold of me through which--neglecting my body--I lived off of coffee and cigarettes.

It took me well into adulthood to develop a wholesome appreciation for the goodness of food, and I had an aversion to chocolate for years. Still, mealtime remains a sore subject for me. It doesn't take too much discomfort before I lose the desire to eat. And I turn into mama bear if anyone begins to question what or how Lilly eats.

I've made it a point never to offer Lilly "special" kinds of food. I never purchased jars of baby food for her; I've offered her what we eat. She wasn't big on solids at first (to my parents' consternation), but she was an avid nurser and chubbier than average. She remains in the 75 percentile in terms of weight.

According to Eating Disorders, recent studies have indicated that as many as 10% of the girls and women in the US have eating disorders:
A history of feeding problems as an infant, childhood obesity or excessive thinness, and fad dieting all may contribute. Severe life stress involving family members or close friends frequently occur in the year before a person develops an eating disorder. Childhood trauma and preoccupation by family members on the importance of weight and appearance may also contribute. If mom, dad, or a sibling is constantly dieting and obsessing about her or his weight, it can cause a young girl to begin obsessing about her own weight. If talk in the house is continually focused around eating and weight, it stands to reason that a young girl will begin to continually think about eating and weight. (my emphasis)

It's hard in our body obsessed culture not to worry about one's weight. My chubbier mother was mocked for her weight by her skinny sister and then by my sinewy father. In turn, my mother turned on my sister who inherited her heavier bones. Closet eating and fad dieting was always a thing at my parents' house.

Before she developed bulimia and anorexia, my sister turned to binge eating. It accelerated at the rate of my parents' verbal abuse. Sex-positive activist, blogger, and freelance writer Rachel Rabbit White recently wrote an important post about the cultural disease of America's binge eating in response to Gwyneth Paltrow's "fat shaming" of late night comedian Ross Mathew who credits Paltrow for losing 40 pounds after she "pointed at my tummy and said, ‘What’s going on here? I love you. Get it together.’” Writes White:
When we discuss the “obesity epidemic” or the merits of body-acceptance and fat-positivity, there is an elephant in the room: obesity can be a signifier of an eating disorder– of compulsive eating–binging. America doesn’t have an obesity crisis–we have a binging crisis. Was Gwyneth sincerely checking in with his mental health in–what is going on here? Doubtful, if only because this is something not being discussed–in either the obesity epidemic or the body acceptance dialogs. And being someone who is body-positive and fat-positive, I think not discussing it is pretty irresponsible.

Binging and compulsive eating seems to be America’s favorite high (oh hai restaurant portions) and it’s a high available to kids. But instead of treating the “obesity epidemic” as something psychological or emotional, we send kids home with BMI’s on their report cards–grading their bodies.
I am all-too aware of the responsibility that falls on me at our house to foster appreciation for our wholesome, healthy bodies. That doesn't mean anything goes; while as a family we indulge at times, we try to model appreciation for healthy foods, moderation, and integrated physical activity. When I'm not finding time to squeeze in the latter or am feeling like too much good has been taken in, it's a challenge not to get preoccupied "on the importance of weight and appearance." But I've seen and experienced what it can do to a kid, and so I do my damndest in this case too to suck it up and shelter her. I'm the adult. I can deal. She's the child; she's the vulnerable target.

Back at the dinner table, which I dreaded so much as a child, I strive as a parent to provide a calm atmosphere and to engage with and be present to Lilly. As parents, we might both prompt and entice her to eat during our meals but we never, ever push.

Making meals into fun casual picnics, even at the house but other than at the dinner table, say at the porch or in the living room, has been one way that makes mealtime more positive around here. Mellow distractions such as books are also helpful. I highly recommend award-winning educator Pam Allyn's What to Read When: The Books and Stories to Read with Your Child--and All the Best Times to Read Them, which includes recommendations for children's books that foster respect for food and delight in its varieties, including books aimed at the picky eater. For as Allyn writes: food can be for everyone including our children "sustenance both for body and spirit" (284).

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