The cult of being thin is leading to eating disorders and dangerous health problems
Guest post by Wendy Tuohy
Reposted from News.com.au with permission
ONE day, middle-aged Melbourne dad Steve was just any other bloke concentrating on running his small business and enjoying family life. The next he found himself standing with his wife in the fight of their lives, to release the grip of life-threatening anorexia from their little girl.
Thanks in part to a bullying “fat” comment from another Year Six girl, and in part to the huge amount of information available online about how to lose weight dramatically without those around you noticing, sweet-natured and healthy Charlotte had become so stealthy with her eating and her dressing that she had gone a long way towards starving herself before her parents’ eyes.
Steve now knows Charlotte had been dieting since about July last year, but it was not until another parent who hadn’t seen Charlotte for a while remarked on her weight loss that he and his wife, Lisa, realised their daughter had slipped into a serious eating-disorder illness.
“She’s a kind-souled kid and an attractive little girl who all the boys would annoy, and that (calling her ‘fatty’) was this girl’s way of getting at her,” says Steve of the turning point for his little girl.
Charlotte had become one of the more than half of eight to 11 year-old Australian children shown in new figures from the Australian Institute of Family Studies to be so unhappy about their body size they are taking steps to try to control their weight. Paediatricians expressed shock when these statistics were released this week, but Steve feels the constant talk about Australia’s adult obesity crisis is affecting kids’ body image.
The report found: “About half of all children who are underweight or in the normal weight range are dissatisfied with their body size”.
After Steve contacted me following this story here, to discuss the fact young kids really are suffering because of the idea they must achieve super thinness, I asked permission to hear about the family’s journey, and it makes very sobering reading for parents of girls (and an increasing number of boys).
What stands out is just how quickly and how dramatically a child who perceives themselves to be “fat” can alter their habits enough to seriously threaten their health, and how much information is available to help them do it.
“Unbeknown to me and Lisa she started eating differently. But it wasn’t till one of the mums said ‘Do you realise how small Charlotte is? How skinny?’ that’s when we cottoned on,” said Steve. “She seemed to be eating plenty of food, you can be sort of oblivious to it — but they’re not eating anything that will put any weight on.”
Charlotte would get busy in the kitchen cooking up a storm, it was only later her parents realised this was a front to make them believe she was also eating some of it.
“She was cooking all the time, baking things for us, muffins, brownies, cookies all sorts of things. But that was a way of protecting her (secret diet), she’d cook all this stuff but wouldn’t eat it. We’d think she’d eaten them but she hadn’t eaten anything.”
With help from pro-anorexia websites, Charlotte had dropped to a very dangerous low weight before her parents insisted they visit a paediatrician.
“They (anorexia sufferers) get on the internet and they read all the different websites that say what to eat, how to do it on 700 calories a day — which for a body growing so fast means you will lose weight — and how to eat so people can’t see that you’re losing weight.
“They’re like forums for anorexics which put up things about how to hide an eating disorder,” said Steve, who took time off work to throw himself heavily into learning about and helping treat the serious mental health-impacts of anorexia in his daughter.
“It’s been terrible; when we first found out, the doctor said there’s two things we can do; put her in hospital, which the success rate isn’t as high, or treat her at home. I took three or four weeks off work and took about six to eight hours a day, just to feed her.”
Sometimes just getting a glass of Sustagen into their little girl took Steve and his wife an hour and a half.
“She would just sit there and stare straight ahead, and then when that finally got to her she’d burst out crying for a while, before she would finally drink or eat what she had to drink or eat.”
Steve describes how starving the brain of fatty nutrients from products such as dairy and eggs contributes to a breakdown of rational behaviour and to dramatic mood swings. “It was pretty bad, it was shocking,” he says of Charlotte’s reaction to being asked to consume food.
“From stamping her feet … screaming and yelling at us because we were making her fat — she becomes violent and irrational. Last night she ran straight at me kicking and throwing punches. When you starve your brain your brain starts functioning differently,” says the loving dad.
Though weekly visits to the paediatrician and psychologist are helping Charlotte to recover, and she is back at school (where her mother visited daily in the early weeks to supervise Charlotte’s eating), such is the awful power of eating disorders over children that the little girl’s journey back to full health will take many more months.
The good news is she has put on enough weight to have returned to the healthy range for her age, so much so the family’s paediatrician says he wishes to use them as a model for other parents and children struggling with the grip of anorexia.
Steve’s message is simple;
Be aware of what children watch on TV, the sites they visit on the net, and be savvy about influences around them that could poison a healthy mind against its growing body.
“You even look at TV in a completely different way,” says Steve of his experience. He is even alert to gossip segments in which celebrities such as the Kardashians may be celebrating weight loss, which he now views as a potential threat to girls’ wellness.
As a father, Steve worries that constant discussion in media about the adult obesity epidemic sends the message to kids that they must worry about consuming any fat, and he would like to see more emphasis in nutritional education about the importance of simple moderation.
This same warning was given by doctors attending a national eating disorders conference in May, where it was revealed that “Australia’s obsession with obesity is feeding deadly eating disorders which are claiming victims as young as 7, including an increasing number of boys.
The “toxic culture” of body image is causing huge physical, psychological and financial harm, experts warned and obsessive dieting is costing lives and almost $70 billion a year in health and productivity expenses.
Steve also warns parents to be alert and to counter constant messages in advertising, magazines, on TV and social media about thinness — the awful cult which he has seen first hand can suck the life from Australian children.