By co-author Andrea Wachter, LMFT
I was recently interviewed by Janice Bremis, founder of the Eating Disorders Resource Services, to discuss my new children’s book, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell. I thought I would post our discussion in the hopes of reaching more kids and families who need help in this area. If you have, know or care about a child who suffers from a painful body image, please pass this along.
Janice: What sparked the idea for this book?
Andrea: I have been specializing in eating disorders and body image for over 25 years. Throughout that time, I have mostly worked with adults and teens. But over the last few years, I started getting more and more calls from concerned parents, counselors and doctors. I began hearing about young kids with body image problems, some that had even progressed to disordered eating. Imagine a six-year-old child who feels “fat” and will no longer wear a bathing suit or sleeveless shirts. Or a seven-year-old girl who wants six-pack abs and obsessively does sit-ups in the back of the car! A twelve-year old who can barely get dressed for school in the morning because she thinks she’s “too fat,” or an eight-year-old boy who refuses to eat carbs. Who among us even knew what “carbs” or “six-pack abs” were when we were that young? I simply knew I had to do something to try to help these kids.
I reached out to many of my colleagues in the eating disorders field and found that they didn’t work with kids under twelve. Then I tried some of the child therapists I knew and was told that they didn’t treat body image issues and disordered eating. The parents who contacted me were desperate for help and I knew that helping kids sooner rather than later can often prevent a body obsession from escalating into a full-blown eating disorder. So I decided to roll up my sleeves and try to come up with a kid-friendly language to use with these kids. Then I started trying it out with kids and had astounding results. I asked my business partner and co-author, Marsea Marcus, to join me and we started writing this book.
Janice: I notice you use the term “Spell Breakers” throughout your book instead of traditional “Chapters.” Can you say something about that?
Andrea: Most kids (and adults for that matter!) have had a spell cast upon them in this image-obsessed, fitness-crazed culture. We have all been taught that there are “good” and “bad” foods and that we need to “burn calories” and develop a “six-pack” in order to be loveable and special. Most of us adults did not get caught under this spell until our teens or early adulthood. But thanks to social media and the increased obsession with perfection, thinness and fitness, many kids are getting spellbound even sooner. Our book is designed to help kids break the spell. So we use the term “Spell Breakers” instead of “Chapters.” Each Spell Breaker teaches kids (and parents) different ways to challenge the unhealthy beliefs that the culture and media have injected into them.
Janice: Why the “I Feel Fat” Spell?
Andrea: The diet industry and the media have convinced most of us (kids now included) that eating fat and having fat on our bodies is a crime and should be avoided at all cost.
Most kids who hate their bodies do not have a body problem, they have a thinking problem. They think fat is bad. They think they are unlovable unless they look like the images they see in the media. They think if they changed their bodies they would live happily ever after. Our book helps readers challenge and change their thinking. We teach them that their thinking is making them suffer, not their thighs or their stomachs. Our book also teaches kids that “fat” is not a feeling. It has become commonplace in our culture for people to say, “I feel fat.” This is a cover story for deeper feelings like insecure, unlovable or scared. (Of course we use much more kid-friendly words in the book.) But what “I feel fat” usually means is they are having BIG feelings and they are left with thinking that they are too big. Our book helps readers dig deeper and decode what their true feelings are.
Janice: Is your book meant to be read by kids or adults?
Andrea: It really depends on the reading skill and maturity level of each kid. If a child is old enough to read and understand the book, they can certainly read it on their own. Kids that are on the younger end of the spectrum (six and seven) will likely need an adult to read the book to them or with them. Each Spell Breaker ends with a few thought-provoking questions, so it would be helpful if a parent or counselor discusses the questions with each child, but it’s not mandatory. Young readers can write their answers to the questions, or discuss them with a trusted adult in their lives.
Unlike many children’s books that are designed to be read in one sitting, this book is filled with a lot of really deep concepts and we recommend that readers take their time with it. If a child is in counseling, the counselor can read one Spell Breaker each week. Parents can read the book over the course of several nights or weeks to give their child a chance to absorb and practice each of the Spell Breakers. We have also gotten feedback from parents, telling us that they got as much from the book as their child did!
Janice: What advice do you have for a parent whose young kid is feeling “fat?”
Andrea: First of all, look at the messages you are sending to your child about body image, food, fitness and feelings. Are you appreciating your body and the various shapes and sizes we are all supposed to be, or are you talking negatively about your own or other people’s bodies? (We call that, “Fat Chat.”) Are you role-modeling non-diet, moderate eating, or do you undereat, overeat, and talk about foods in terms of “good” and “bad”? Are you in touch with your natural hunger and fullness cues and encouraging your child to do the same? Are you exercising moderately and enjoyably, or are you obsessed with calorie and fat burning? Are you teaching your child how to live a balanced life by doing so yourself? Do you have a healthy relationship with emotions (your own and your child’s), or do you tell yourself and your child to stop crying or to quit feeling angry?
If you have a healthy relationship with your own body, you will be in a better position to help your child do the same. You can teach your child that if they feel bad about their body, it usually means they are having big feelings and they are blaming it on their precious body. You can help them learn to “Follow the Clues” as one Spell Breaker teaches and become a “Body Buddy” instead of a “Bully.” We very use kid-friendly language that most children take to right away and seem to recall easily and enjoy practicing. We hope the language in our book will offer kids a refreshing break from all the fat chat, calorie counting and competition that our culture has inflicted on them.
Janice: How do we stop this crazy obsession with thinness?
Andrea: Well, we can’t stop it singlehandedly and unfortunately we cannot stop it quickly. There is a massive hypnotic spell that has been cast upon our culture and although there are more and more health professionals and celebrities speaking out on the importance of body acceptance, we still have a very long way to go. I recently watched a movie where three young girls ordered a school lunch of lasagna and salad. They each then proceeded to eat a few bites of lettuce, simultaneously walk into the bathroom stalls at their school, and make themselves throw up! This insanity is normalized. When kids come into my office, utterly convinced that their bodies are unacceptable, I know I have my work cut out for me. I am fighting the cultural messages. It’s like I’m trying to give them medicine for the flu and then sending them out into a petri dish of flu germs. But I, and all the other people who carry the torch of body peace, acceptance and love, can only do what we can. We can plant seeds, with kids and with parents, because as parents heal, they can make a difference, even if the culture is not yet healed. We can learn to welcome our natural emotions instead of funneling them into the catchall phrase of “feeling fat.” We can learn to normalize the various shapes and sizes of human bodies and challenge the notion of perfection. We can learn to let go of extreme dieting. We can stop laughing at, and telling, fat jokes. And we can stop putting down our own bodies and start appreciating them.
Living in a food-obsessed, thin-possessed, perfectionist culture, breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell is no easy task. But it is possible. With help, awareness and willingness, we can break the spell that has been cast upon us and we can help the children in our lives to live healthily ever after.
Click here to check out Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell by Andrea Wachter and Marsea Marcus.