Medical Examiner

How to Talk to Your Kid About Bodies When You Have an Eating Disorder Yourself

The author of The Eating Instinct on what the research says.

A young girl eating ice cream from a cone
Photo by Mieke Campbell on Unsplash

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I can say one of the most difficult tasks I face as a parent is trying to teach my child to have a healthy relationship with things that I, quite frankly, do not have a healthy relationship with. That would specifically be food and my body. I recently spoke to Virginia Sole-Smith, the author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America, about how we can all help our kids have a healthier relationship with food and with their bodies. Our conversation appeared on Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Jamilah Lemieux: I’m going to be transparent. I have an eating disorder. This war I’ve been in with my body and with food started when I was 8 or 9 and has been a persistent issue throughout my adult life. Now I’m raising an 8-year-old girl and I’m terrified. How much of this should I be disclosing to her?

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Virginia Sole-Smith: We know from the research that it’s really damaging for kids when they see a parent actively engaging in eating disorder behaviors and presenting that as sort of normal. We also know that when parents talk about their kid’s body or the child’s eating, that can be very damaging. I think kids can understand their parent’s struggle as long as it’s framed very clearly in the message that all bodies are good: Your worth is not your body, and your body size is not your worth.

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As long as there’s that framing to the conversation, I think it’s OK to say, “I struggle with this because we live in a culture that gives us so many messages about our bodies and it can be really hard to navigate that sometimes.” What you’re doing is creating a safe space. If your daughter is struggling with something along these lines, she knows that you’re going to get it and will help her find the tools she needs to work through this.

How do we prepare kids to encounter diet culture and beauty standards in a way that supports their self-esteem but also braces them for what might happen if they run afoul of what’s considered to be acceptable?

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Often, we want to tell ourselves that our little kids don’t know to worry about their bodies. But we’re kidding ourselves. Kids start to internalize “fat is bad” as early as ages 3–5; that research is pretty clear. Which means it’s never too early to start talking about this. Often parents think that talking to kids about fatphobia or weight stigma will cause kids to worry about their bodies. But the culture is probably already getting the message across. So we need to be actively trying to raise kids to not be fatphobic.

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Think about it like this: White parents don’t talk enough about racism or race with our kids. That is why white kids aren’t great on race. You build racism when you don’t talk about it. Similarly, I think we need to tell our kids at a very young age, “Bodies come in all different shapes and sizes.” You can start calling out fatphobia when you see it in culture. Kids’ media will give you plenty of opportunities.

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How can we make sure our kids are getting the nutrition they need without making them feel bad about eating certain foods or being too controlling of what’s on their plate?

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A really common misconception parents have is that every meal needs to be perfectly composed, nutritionwise, and we are failing if our kids don’t eat every food group we serve. Research shows that the best thing parents can do is take a giant step back from which foods and how much their kids are eating at every meal.

The concept I refer to often is called division of responsibility, or responsive feeding. The basic concept is that you, the parent, are in charge of which foods are offered at a meal. But that doesn’t mean that it’s always only healthy foods. You offer a range of foods and always at least one thing on the table you know your child likes. That might mean for dinner you’ve got chicken and pasta and a salad and they eat three helpings of pasta and ignore everything else. That’s fine. That’s you roll with it. You don’t say anything. You don’t make a fuss over it. You don’t push the salad. You don’t barter. You don’t require them to eat a green vegetable to get dessert. You let them make that choice.

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What you see over time is the structure lets kids really start to listen to their bodies. I’ve noticed that one of my children will eat just carbohydrates for like two weeks. Then there will be a day where she’s all about the broccoli and raspberries. If you step back and look at their intake over a week or two, you see that they start to hit the different food groups. They just don’t hit them in that sort of MyPlate perfect model that we’re expecting.

It’s a much less stressful way to eat with your family. And that’s when you start to get into the true benefits of those family meal times that we know are so protective against future eating disorders and all sorts of other issues. Your kids see you modeling eating different foods, and that’s going to encourage them eventually to want to eat the Brussels sprouts or whatever.

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What would you suggest someone do if they start to see the signs that their child has an unhealthy relationship to food or their body?

You just want to check in—in a curious and nonjudgmental way.

If it’s a younger kid, I think you can say something like: “Hey, I’m noticing your lunchbox is coming home full every day. Are you not liking what’s for lunch? Or is there a reason you’re not feeling like you can eat lunch right now?”

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Keep it very broad because you also don’t always know what you’re seeing until you give them a chance to talk to you about it. If you are making your house a very body-positive, fat-acceptance kind of space, your kid may feel guilty that they’re struggling because they know this is a value that you hold. So let them know that these feelings and struggles are real.

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Parents do not show up for parenthood with this stuff figured out. We are all working through our own stuff. On a similar note, I think one of the biggest mistakes parents often make is when a child says something like, “Am I fat?” Often parents rush to say, “You’re not fat. You’re beautiful.” That puts fat and beauty in opposition to each other and reinforces that fat is bad.

So if your child is thin and comes to you and says, “I feel fat.” You want to figure out what’s really going on there. Ask, why does fat feel bad to you? If your child is fat and they ask, “Am I fat?” You say, “Yeah, you’re fat and you’re fabulous. Your body is amazing.” But at the same time you say, “I know the world doesn’t make it easy for you to be in this body and I know you are probably struggling with some stuff.” You validate those feelings that they are having while continuing to accept their body.

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