Talking About Anorexia With Pre-Teens: Too Early?

by MomGrind

anorexicAnna Wood before and after becoming sick with anorexia

When I was fourteen, I almost became anorexic. My story isn’t different than countless other stories. I had gone on a crash diet, trying to fight the inevitable rounding of my thighs as I gradually turned into a woman. Although I was not overweight, I wasn’t as skinny as I used to be just a year before. I was determined to go back to being skinny.

So I hung a photo of a skinny model I had torn out of a fashion magazine on my closet door, and went on a strict diet of 1000 calories per day. I lost a fairly significant amount of weight. I can’t remember how much exactly I had lost, but at the height of the diet I weighed 103 pounds, which was underweight for my then-height of 5 feet, 4 inches.

I remember the pleasure I felt when I looked in the mirror and saw my thinness. It seemed so beautiful, so pure. I wanted to lose even more weight, because the more I had lost, the more beautiful my body seemed to me.

Then I lost my period, and by some miracle that I am eternally grateful for, I was one of the young girls who respond to such a signal (for others it might be loss of hair or brittle nails) with alarm and fear. My mom took me to a doctor who had explained the significance of losing one’s periods, and I was scared into going back to eating. I went back to normal eating, almost overnight.

I was lucky, but many other girls are not. They keep dieting, restricting their caloric intake and upping their exercise level, slowly wasting away. Many end up dying from the disease, literally dying from starvation, unthinkable in our well-fed Western society, but it happens all the time.

Now, the mother of two young daughters aged nine and eleven, I constantly struggle with the need to help them stay healthy and fit, and avoid gaining too much weight in this crazy atmosphere of junk food and overeating and portions that are completely out of control. Being overweight is unhealthy – but on the other hand, being severely underweight is deadly.

How do I walk that fine line? How do I protect my children from this horrible disease, yet help them cope with a greedy, ruthless food industry that pushes them into overeating, and eating junk? No doubt, one way to do that is to focus on health and fitness rather than on thinness as a goal. But what about directly discussing anorexia? Is it a good idea? And if so, at what age?

The opportunity to talk about anorexia with my daughters had presented itself to me a few weeks ago, when I came across the article about Anna Wood, a British teenager who had died of Anorexia at the age of sixteen. As I was reading the article, tears in my eyes, I knew immediately that my girls would have to see her photos. While they are certainly still very young, and the photos are harsh, I felt that now is the time to talk about issues that if I wait just a couple more years to discuss, it might be too late.

Now, when they still listen to me, when I can instill my ideas and values in them, is the time to talk about sex, drugs, alcohol, and – yes – anorexia. The longer I wait, the bigger the risk that when I finally attempt to have “the talk” with them, it will be too late.

So I showed them the photos, and told them about Anna, and we had read the article together. I talked about my own experience with extreme dieting and how I had stopped when I realized it was hurting me, but some girls are unable to stop.

More than anything else, I wanted to burn those photos into their memories forever. I wanted to teach their young brains to make the connection that extreme dieting is ugly and deadly, that it takes a beautiful, beautiful person and turns her into a shadow of her former self, into a walking dead, before it finally kills her.

I want my kids to never ever equate extreme dieting with beauty, the way I did when I was fourteen. The fashion industry and the media will do everything in their power to tell them otherwise – to tell them that you can never be too thin, and when they are 14, 15, 16 they will listen to the media, not to me. But now, when they still listen to me, I want to tell them – to SHOW them – that you CAN be too thin and that thin does not equal beautiful.

Will it help protect my children from developing the deadly disease? Who knows. But I feel that I need to do everything in my power to at least try.

When my 11 years old daughter showed the photos to a friend, the friend’s mom was upset. She had felt that the material was inappropriate for an eleven years old girl and that her daughter should never have seen Anna’s photos.

While I can see where the mom is coming from, and acknowledge that I should have instructed my daughter not to share this material with friends (after all this IS harsh material and should be up to each parent to decide if their child should see it), I still wonder, what does that mom plan on doing? Is she planning on waiting? For how much longer? Is she planning on not discussing anorexia with her daughter at all? Aren’t both of these choices – waiting until it might be too late, and doing nothing at all, extremely risky?

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