The other night, my 15-year-old daughter came into the bathroom to chat with me while I got ready for bed. She’s been taking a community college nutrition class, and she told me the chapter she’d just read in her textbook was about eating disorders.
“That was really kind of disturbing to read about,” she said, as I started to wash my face. This is my vomit-phobic kid, so I assumed she was talking about bulimia. “Yes,” I said. “I know.”
“Also, you know how I tend to worry that I’m going to develop any sickness that I read about?” she said. She comes by that tendency honestly, through her father’s hypochondria genes. “Yes, I know,” I said, setting down my washcloth.
“So I’m sort of worried that at some point I’ll develop anorexia or bulimia, even though I can’t see myself ever EVER doing that.” Now, some parents or professionals might see statement as a red flag, but I know my kid well. She has anxiety about health stuff. The anxiety is definitely real. All the things she thinks might happen to her are not. She’s talking it out to help logic kick in.
“I know what you’re saying,” I responded. “I was the same way you are. I had such an intense aversion to throwing up, there’s no way I would ever do that. No matter how I ever felt about my body, purging was never going to be an option.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I don’t really get it. Or anorexia, either. I mean, not like in a conceited way, but I know that my body is awesome and beautiful the way it is, that it’s the temple for my soul, and that it’s amazing with all the things it can do. I know I should keep it healthy, but I also know that it doesn’t matter if it has some extra fat on it.”
“Yes,” I responded, fist pumping on the inside. “And that’s an awesome attitude. But at some point, I’m sure you will feel that pull from society. We’re all bombarded with it all the time—from magazines, advertisements, TV, movies. The message that your body should look a certain way is everywhere.
We’ve tried really hard to instill into you that your body is capable and amazing. That just the fact that you can run and jump and swim and climb is plenty to be grateful for. But not everyone grows up getting that. Some kids get the message from very early on that their bodies aren’t good enough, from their parents or peers or elsewhere.”
“Seriously?” she responded, wide-eyed. “From their parents?”
“Sadly, yes, sometimes,” I said. “There are a lot of people out there who have unhealthy relationships with food and with their bodies. As you go out further into the world, you’ll find those eating disorders are more common than you think.
But the thing is, generally speaking, an eating disorder isn’t something that just happens to you randomly. I’d never place blame on someone for having one, but those disorders stem from the psychology of how we view our bodies and how we view thinness. I hope and pray that we’ve helped you start off with a strong, healthy idea of what your body is for and how to take good care of it so you can more easily battle those messages that put too much emphasis on the way your body looks.”
She nodded. “Yeah, maybe that’s where I should place my teen rebellion and angst—‘No! I’m not doing that! No! I’m not buying that!’” She laughed. She was joking (she’s quite a self-aware teen), but I thought it was actually a beautiful idea. The urge to do your own thing and to detach from authority that feels oppressive is a natural adolescent tendency. Channeling that urge into rebellion against the oppressive pull of societal expectations sounds genius to me.
I know our work here isn’t done, but so far, so good. I hope she keeps rebelling against the idea that her body is something to be judged by an arbitrary pop culture standard. I hope she keeps being thankful for what her body can do. I hope she can help pass that on to her peers who may not have as solid a body image foundation. I hope she holds onto that foundation no matter how her body changes in the future.
That’s a rebellion I can get behind.