I don’t mean to scare you, but adolescent girls are not doing well these days. In the last five years, rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders in this age group skyrocketed. It is a documented phenomenon and psychological researchers are doing their best to find the etiology. There are several hypotheses for why this is happening, chief among them is the way that adolescent girls use social media—i.e. for validation of their looks.
Before you condemn young girls for their vanity, understand that this is a perpetuation of a cultural problem that been in existence since at least the Industrial Revolution—namely, that the only purpose women and girls serve is to look pretty and make the house pretty. Although patriarchal norms have provided the foundation for this paradigm, it shifted into extremes in the late 1800’s when men went to work in the factories and women became the “angel of the home”—the place men came home to for rest. Men and women were no longer working side by side as they did during the agrarian period.
I live in Orange County, CA—where the wealthy still hold debutante balls for their 16 year old daughters. And where many of my young female clients share with me that their parents want them to marry well. Their parents are surprised to learn their daughters are struggling.
Working with eating disorders found me. Back in 2009 during the recession, I managed to find a paid position as a therapist—which was nothing short of a miracle at the time. But I had to be open to work that other therapists balked at: my job was to provide “meal support” to clients with severe eating disorders. To literally sit with them and eat.
Since then I have steadily worked with this particular diagnosis in various treatment settings and I have come to a few conclusions about how to prevent this diagnosis for those who are concerned. While we cannot change the culture, or bar them from smart phones, or hide them in a cave until their brain is finished developing, we can provide excellent insulation from the cultural weather by how we talk about food and our bodies at home. Here are a few tips:
1. Moms: NEVER, I mean NEVER EVER EVER talk about dieting, wanting to lose weight, or in general talk negatively about your body in front of your daughter. They are LISTENING.
2. Since you’re breaking the habit of talking about you not dieting, work on just not dieting or trying to lose weight. There are loads of research on how diets, fasts, juices, cleanses and all of these things don’t actually work in the long run. Also, it turns out that slightly overweight people live the longest anyway. They live longer than skinny people. I’m not kidding.
3. Have regular dinner time. I know it’s tough with everyone’s schedules, but try to prioritize meal time as a part of the family routine. It does not have to be fancy. We often sit down to a glamorous meal of macaroni and cheese and grocery store chicken. During dinner, try to connect about the day. Ask open-ended questions. Above all, do NOT FIGHT at the table. About anything. Do NOT bring up topics that you know are tense. For crying out loud, practice what you preach about patience and WAIT until AFTER dinner to bring up your kids’ D in algebra. Mealtime should be separate from big emotional issues.
4. Talk to your daughter about her professional goals—what she wants to do when she grows up. Encourage her love of everything. Kids are born scientists, mathematicians, writers, artists, engineers and creators.
5. Talk about how bodies and beauty are subjective. Talk about how beautiful she is when she is DOING something. When women and girls focus on being an object, their anxiety about their looks increases. But when they are the SUBJECT, their anxiety vanishes because they are experiencing their body doing something that makes them feel good—like playing sports, doing a science experiment, playing tag, painting.
6. Have conversations about what they think about all this focus on the outside. Let them passionately tell you what they think. I love the energy of adolescence—if channeled properly, it can change the world.
7. Lastly, model the behavior you want to see in your daughter. She is watching. Change the way you see your body. Change the relationship you have to food. Begin to value your body for what it can do and how it can hold and how it changes and how it is constantly adapting.