Here's the Fastest Way to Give Your Kid an Eating Disorder
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Here’s the Fastest Way to Give Your Kid an Eating Disorder

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eatingdisorderskidsWe all know there’s tons of pressure from the media and society to look skinny. As we speak, everyone’s going apeshit over how to get the proverbial thigh gap (or how to battle against the ridiculous pressure to have one). Often, pressure to lose weight starts at home. It might seem that if a parent gave their overweight kid a little well-meaning advice to cut out the soda and fries it’d be no biggie, but a new study published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders has proven this is a seriously hazardous move, one that can affect a child’s body image into adulthood and lead to an array of eating disorders.

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Don’t Say Anything At All!

The study came out of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab and included more than 500 women as subjects. These women, all in their 20s and early 30s, were asked if their parents made comments about their weight while growing up and also answered questions regarding their body image.

In the end, the women who received comments on their weight by their parents constantly felt the need to lose 10 to 20 pounds as adults as opposed to those who didn’t. Whether or not the women were overweight as kids or as adults didn’t matter—if mom and pop referenced their weight at all, even just one comment, it profoundly impacted their body image.

Dr. Brian Wansik, director of the Food and Lab Brand and the lead author of the study, told the New York Times “We asked the women to recall how frequently parents commented, but the telling thing was that if they recalled it happening at all, it had as bad an influence as if it happened all the time. A few comments were the same as commenting all the time. It seems to make a profound impression.” Wansik actually referred to this impression as “scarring.”

Multiple other studies about the impact of parents commenting on their child’s weight have taken place, all resulting in the same conclusion—it’s bad news. Whether it’s increasing the likelihood of obesity or eating disorders, according to research, even parents’ well-meaning critiques have a negative impact on kids. On top of that, when children are raised watching their parents diet or obsess about their weight, this also can lead to fat-phobia and body image distortion.

 So What’s a Worried Parent to Do?

Of course no parent wants to see their kid packing on dozens of pounds, ultimately jeopardizing her or his health. But there are some tips experts suggest. University of Minnesota Professor Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, author of I’m Like SO Fat!”: Helping Your Teen Making Healthy Eating and Exercise Choices in a Weight-Obsessed World  advises parents to create a healthy home environment by ditching the sugar and processed crap, eating healthy and encouraging family exercise. Essentially, modeling good behavior for the kids is better than saying “Hey, you should probably lose 10 pounds.”

“I try to promote the idea of talking less and doing more — doing more to make your home a place where it’s easy to make healthy eating and physical activity choices, and talking less about weight.”

I Can Vouch For This

All of this research makes sense to me. I remember the exact moment when my mother said “Your thighs are getting kind of chunky.” I was coming down the stairs dressed in white cut-off jean shorts right before my last day of sixth grade. Prior to her comment, I didn’t give a shit about my thighs. But being born and raised in Los Angeles to a sort of weight-obsessed family—my mom and aunts and grandmother were always on some sort of diet—it wasn’t exactly a shock that she would comment that my scrawny prepubescent thighs had grown into veritable ham hocks.

By my sophomore year of high school, I developed an eating disorder, one that grew out of an effort to starve myself because I wanted spaghetti arms and, well, that thigh gap. Though I did drop twenty pounds in like two months (it’s amazing what living off non-buttered whole wheat toast and peaches will do!), my body decided to try and keep me alive by throwing me into full-throttle binge mode. I began eating everything in sight and ended up gaining the twenty pounds back, along with ten extra pounds for good measure.

I’m not sure if my mother’s comment catalyzed that eating disorder (thankfully it’s now in remission, save for the occasional Oreo binge), but it couldn’t have helped. She certainly meant well, but for a 15-year-old with an athletic build coming of age during the Winona Ryder and Kate Moss era, I might have fared better if she’d just suggested I try out for the cheer squad or join the track team instead.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.