Children are not born with a bad body image. They learn it. They learn it from the culture and the media, or from relatives, friends, and schoolmates who learned it from the culture and the media. And since body hatred is an epidemic in our image-obsessed culture, there is no shortage of places for kids to learn to dislike their bodies. As a psychotherapist who has been specializing in eating disorders for over 25 years, I have been helping people of all ages who battle with their bodies to varying degrees. Whether they are dealing with a full-blown eating disorder, less severe “disordered eating,” or painful body image issues, they all deserve and need help.
I began hating my body when I was twelve years old. Someone teased me about the size of my thighs, and I felt what I now know was shame for the first time. This is what I refer to as a “Dart in the Heart” moment. My solution was to embark on my very first diet. Like many, this led me to sneak eating, bingeing, and roller coaster weight fluctuations. Like some, this morphed into a serious eating disorder. I say serious because it colored most of my life for several decades and greatly affected my mental and physical well-being. Fortunately, after many years of searching for help that actually helped, I began to unravel the root causes of my eating disorder and body obsession. I learned that I could not stop bingeing if I did not stop dieting. I learned what emotions I was eating over and what to do with those emotions instead. I learned how to challenge rather than believe every thought that popped up on the screen of my mind. And I learned how to find sweetness from many different sources, not just from cookies and ice cream. It was a long road. And the lovely parting gift from that arduous journey is that I now have the honor of helping others who struggle in similar ways.
The majority of my clients over the last few decades have been teenagers, college students, and adults, with a small sprinkling of young kids. But as our cultural obsessions with thinness, dieting, fat phobia, and social media have all gotten bigger, the age range of my clients seems to be getting younger. So instead of getting occasional calls from concerned parents, counselors, and doctors, I now receive them regularly. Imagine a small six-year-old child who cannot get dressed for school in the morning because she thinks she’s too “fat,” or an eleven-year-old girl who won’t go to a sleepover because all her friends are thinner than she is. Imagine a lovely eight-year-old who once enjoyed swimming but will no longer go in the pool because she feels too self-conscious in a bathing suit, or a nine-year-old boy who, though underweight, refuses to eat carbs. Or how about an eight-year-old girl who is obsessed with working out?
When I was eight years old, I was blissfully unaware of my body. I was playing tag in the yard with my siblings or watching The Brady Bunch in the den. I listened to records. I read in my canopy bed. Today, many young kids are surfing the Internet on iPhones and computers. This means that on top of the brainwashing they get on television, they are ingesting an additional barrage of messages on their other screens. They are bombarded with information about unnatural thinness, fat phobia, excessive fitness, endless food rules, and adult sexuality. Most of us adults did not experience anything like this until we were much older. And even then, we found it difficult to get through unscathed.
As I began to see more young children each week, I found myself needing to adapt the work I had been doing with adults into a more “kid-friendly” version. Some of the parents reported that they had already taken the advice from the current self-help literature: limiting screen time, filtering media, and teaching their children that all bodies are beautiful. While these suggestions are great, they weren’t helping to change what was already going on with their kids. It was as if their children had fallen under a spell, and nothing these parents said seemed to make any difference. What we needed to do was find a way to break the spell, or Retrain the Brain.
So, as I began teaching kids how to talk back to their Unkind Minds and strengthen their Kind Minds, I began to see something really exciting. Week after week, these precious little munchkins were bouncing into my office exclaiming that what we were doing was making a difference! One little six-year-old literally skipped into my office and said, “I was totally free this week. I think we broke the spell. It feels so much better to be in reality!” Another child, when I asked her to describe to her mom what she was learning in our sessions said, “Well, I was under the spell 98% last week, and this week I’m only 73% spell.” (Sounds like a budding mathematician to me!) One young boy, during a family session, announced, “I am over it. I’m sick of being so hard on myself. I just want to eat normally from now on. I don’t want to have to be perfect.” One parent told me that his daughter, who had been refusing to wear sleeveless dresses and bathing suits, was swimming again and taking off the oversized jackets that had become her daily cover-ups.
All of these dramatic changes were confirmation to me that there is great hope for children with painful body images. I realized I simply had to write a book to share these ideas and exercises with other children, parents, and counselors. It has been an honor to share all the tips and tools that helped me break my own spell, and I sincerely hope that Mirror, Mirror will help the child you care about break free of theirs.