You are altogether beautiful my love, there is no flaw in you. – Song of Solomon 4:7
Eating disorders are more common than ever nowadays with the media, entertainment industries, magazines and more depicting women (and men) as flawless. With technology like Photoshop too, it’s all too easy to conceptualize beauty as people who have it all together.
The fashion industry has long idealized the tall, slender, almost Barbie-esque figure as the image of beauty, which makes it no wonder that girls who are a far cry from that body type might feel unimportant to society. There are fads every year that diet and fashion companies push for young adults to care about.
Your eyebrows are an important feature on your face, make sure they look perfect like this! The hottest hair trends are best represented by these famous people! It never ends. The fixation on image that our culture and Hollywood based society has is unreal.
What is worse is that beauty really is only skin deep in these contexts. Beauty is being defined, talked about, sold, marketed, advertised, edited and crafted into a product that can be bought with enough time, makeup and clothes. Beauty is something we compare: “she is prettier than her.” Beauty is something we place great value on, even higher than internal depth, smarts, and more. Beauty has become an obsession in our culture.
This post actually has two purposes: to point out causes that lead to the development of eating disorders and to also provide parents, friends, peers, and more with ideas on how they can help a teen that they might know who is struggling with an eating disorder.
One caveat I have about what I share is that this article is not intended to make weight-loss a focus. The ideas I provide on how to help teens change how they think about their weight might seem to constitute a focus on weight.
However, I would caution that if it’s possible, we as supporters and caretakers of teens struggling with their body image should be able to encourage a new way of living and thinking for these teens without ever having to join them in their focus on weight loss.
Top Three Causes of Eating Disorders in Adolescents
So, here are, in my opinion, the top three causes of eating disorders in adolescents:
1. Because so much attention is placed on image in our culture
It might start with wondering “why don’t I look like those girls.” It might not begin with conscious concerns or thoughts about one’s weight. After all, eating disorders are a weight obsession, not just a beauty/fashion/looks obsession.
But, if you listen close enough to the ways teens talk about themselves before developing an eating disorder, I guarantee you their thoughts about themselves were leaning more on the harsh, unkind, judging side about themselves.
They might have started by believing they weren’t good enough in a multitude of physical ways, and eventually, those thoughts transformed into believing that not only was their body type not good enough, but their entire being. I believe one of the top causes of eating disorders in adolescents is our cultures heavy focus on image in general. If there was less talk/focus on outward appearance, there would be less worry about it.
2. Because of personal experiences with being told they’re not beautiful
One of the primary causes of eating disorders stems not only from the messages we receive about beauty from the media and society but from the messages we receive from those around us in our immediate sphere.
Not only from family but among peers there is both a spoken and unspoken culture of comparison that exists, making it even harder for a teen to believe that who they are is beautiful. In many cases, teens received subtle or overt messages from loved ones that their body was not good enough. Comments like, “oh, you’re having another serving?” or “oh, you don’t fit into those jeans anymore?” can destroy a developing teens image of themselves.
Teens are growing into their identity and struggling with enough pressure and insecurity as it is simply because their bodies are developing on a daily basis and the rapid amount of change they’ll go through in those years is significant.
But then to be given additional messages of that they should be concerned about their weight is enough to push a teen to develop an eating disorder for the sake of trying to control something in the midst of a season where much of what they go through is out of their control. Critical messages about their body can cause a teen to become paranoid about themselves.
3. Because of a lack of positive messages about their value
Self-esteem is often low at that age, again, because there is so much value being placed on a teens ability to perform – at home, in school, in sports, etc. There is a lot of pressure put on a teen and they need a lot of positive input to believe in themselves.
Without this, teens (especially girls) become prone to body bash themselves and their abilities. Without someone else believing in them and categorizing their identity as beautiful-as-is, their mind will likely convince them they must do more and be more and lose more (weight) to be good enough for the world.
How to Help Teens with Eating Disorders
What you can do to help if you know a teen who is or has developed an eating disorder:
1. Love them
It seems simple, but loving a person and speaking to how perfect they are just the way they are is so helpful. Be a voice that contradicts their already very critical inner voice and the critical voices of their peers. Be someone who teaches them what self-love looks like by modeling for them how you too believe you are beautiful and that your body size is not your identity.
2. Educate them
I know this sounds silly, but let’s talk about this for a second. Did you know that if a person really wants to lose weight, there are significant things they can do that are healthy to not only lose weight but keep it off? I’m not encouraging fixation with weight loss here, but I am simply advocating for the lesser of two evils.
If you know someone who has a significant problem with thinking about or worrying about gaining weight and they are using extreme strategies like throwing up or restricting their food intake to achieve this goal, you might want to educate them on the backward progress those habits will have on their weight loss in the long run.
I have found that for some, their concerns about their weight is so obsessive in nature, that the only things they will listen to are conversations about their weight. So, one way to engage their thoughts about their weight is to offer them practical advice. You might begin by asking them how throwing up or not eating is working for them in terms of keeping weight off.
You might find that for some, it really is working. But for the majority of people who have a regular metabolic system in their bodies, they will experience their weight shifting drastically between losses and gains.
I like to explain this to clients by talking about brain training and explaining to them that the more they restrict or remove nutrients and vitamins and energy (food) from their body, the more they are training their brain to do whatever it takes to cling to fat or nutrients whenever it actually does get some.
So, this means that if a person is practicing restrictive habits most of the time, but some of the time splurges and lets themselves eat a regular sized meal, that regular sized meal is going to be absorbed much differently by their body that is regularly starved for nutrition most of the time than if they had regular intake of food. Most nutritionists will also tell you that our metabolism is influenced by our food intake.
For example, when we eat breakfast first thing in the morning, we are starting to use our metabolism to break down food early in the day. If we don’t eat breakfast though, (which a lot of people don’t for fear of gaining weight!), we actually are slowing down our metabolism and telling it not to begin digesting food until lunchtime, at which time it hasn’t yet warmed up.
All in all, the way we eat food, how many meals we have each day, and how consistently we turn on and off that switch in our brain (metabolism), is very important to true weight control. I will reiterate, however, that the purpose of me sharing these ‘tips’ for true weight loss is not to encourage further fixation on body image.
If it were up to me I wouldn’t even be talking about weight at all because the reality is that what you talk about is what you focus on, and I seek to encourage my clients to talk much more about their internal emotional and spiritual and mental worlds than about their external physical ones.
However, I have found in working with teens with eating disorders, that conversations about weight are inevitable and a crucial part of their recovery. If you really want to help someone overcome something, it is, to some degree, helpful to talk about it, but just to be careful to not join them in their overarching narrative that “weight is the most important thing to think about.”
What I am encouraging is to acknowledge for that teen that yes, weight seems to be very important to them, and because you care about them, you would love to help them reach their goals by educating them about the healthy, self-loving ways they can lose weight while also taking care of themselves.
Words like “fat,” “heavy,” “big boned,” and “muscular” can be trigger words for teens dealing with body image issues. But, how we think about and define words can really influence the meaning we give to them. I might encourage you to re-define some of these words with the teen you’re concerned about.
Look at some of the plus-size models out there for example. There is an entire industry dedicated to re-defining what beautiful is by claiming that their size is in fact very beautiful and even model worthy! How is that for re-defining body image.
For others, there are campaigns that only hire models who have skin blemishes such as vitiligo and more. Those companies are actually saying that your imperfections are what make you beautiful. What if, for the teen you know, their weight is actually a good thing?
I truly believe weight loss is just a symptom. I truly believe that just like any addiction or obsession, thoughts/comments/feelings about one’s body are simply a symptom of deeper issues related to misunderstandings about one’s true worth, in Christ.
I believe that the best way to combat lies about one’s self is to focus on the truth that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made,’ (Psalm 139:14) just as we are, and that everyone is different, and comparison is the thief of joy. I believe true self-love is about understanding and internalizing how you were loved enough that God sent His Son to die for the very body that is being hated on.
I didn’t talk very much about that subject in this post because in my experience it can take time for a person dealing with body image issues to internalize it. I believe one way to lead people to those kinds of conversations (the ones we know are ultimately more beneficial for them) is to take seriously their immediate thoughts and feelings by discussing with them exactly what they seem to be worried about.
Again, I’m not encouraging us to stay here in this area of engaging in conversations about weight indefinitely but I do believe that there can be some benefit in being willing to acknowledge for a teen “yes, weight really does seem to matter a lot to you” and “yes, if you really do feel that controlling your weight is the only thing you can do to feel good about yourself, here are some less extreme, and more healthy ways to move towards that goal.”
If a young person can begin to take better care of themselves by losing weight in healthy, non-destructive ways, I think it will be a stepping stone to beginning to have conversations such as “okay, now that you’re able to be kinder to your body, let’s talk about how you can think better of yourself as a spiritual/physical/emotional being. Let’s talk now about how you were created for so much more and how there is even more freedom waiting for you than you could imagine.”
The ultimate goal is to instill a sense of hope that freedom from caring what one looks like is not only achievable but incredibly freeing and conducive to understanding one’s true beauty in Christ. You are so much more than your looks.
“Donut with Bite”, Courtesy of Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “From Ashes”, Courtesy of Jairo Alzate, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Makeover”, Courtesy of Andrei Lazarev, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Contemplation”, Courtesy of Strecosa, Pixabay.com, CC0 License