By the time most people learn the truth about eating disorders, it is oftentimes too late. Those who seek out knowledge on eating disorders tend to be parents or loved ones who have a sinking suspicion that someone in their lives may be suffering from such a disorder and want to learn more. There is a serious lack of understanding on the subject of prevention. How does one prevent an eating disorder? Is that even possible?
An eating disorder is a psychological coping mechanism, a way to handle a deeper psychological phenomenon that is accompanied by unhealthy eating patterns and behaviors. There are three overall methods of prevention:
The first is to find out more on the subject, before someone you know is suffering. People generally feel that ignorance is bliss, and do not worry about involving themselves in knowledge of this field. Instead, it is best to do the research and understand why an eating disorder strikes and therefore how to prevent it before it is “too late.” There are some wonderful databases of information including the National Eating Disorder Association Website where one can learn a plethora of information. But how does understanding an eating disorder help with prevention? By understanding what causes an eating disorder, you can take steps to encourage healthy behaviors and attitudes in your home with your loved ones. Learn! Find out more on the subject so that you can build an understanding! The more you know, the earlier on, the better.
To illustrate this point: when I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder, my parents were told on “good authority” that they should simply let it be and that the disorder would vanish on its own. Because my parents—as educators—had previous knowledge on the subject, they knew that leaving the disorder to fizzle on its own could cause serious damage. While I had already been diagnosed (and so this was not prevention per se), their nipping it in the bud, rather than waiting, significantly lessened my time in recovery.
Second, eating disorders are believed to have both a genetic and social component. There is a tremendous amount of research currently being done on the human genome and where eating disorders may come into play. Until we see definite results on that research, we can only work on the social, or “nurture” aspects of the disorder. It is important for prevention to focus on your child or loved one’s inner strengths rather than his/her appearance. Parents may worry about their child’s weight, but instead of speaking to a doctor to see if there should be legitimate concern, or approaching the subject from a healthy place, they say all the wrong things and cause the child to think that there is something wrong with her. She may then take this to mean that she needs to alter her appearance and take drastic unhealthy measures.
This is not to say that parents should never show concern, but it should be done in a way that the children will not feel their weight is truly emphasized. Additionally, when mothers speak about diets at home in front of their children, they are teaching these young minds that a diet is what is expected of them in the future. Parents should be careful not to speak about food in negative terms, or to give value to weight. While a diet can absolutely be positive for some people and from a healthy place, it should not be spoken about in front of children. In fact, Laura Cipullo, well known Dietician and Eating Disorder Specialist, believes that the word diet should never be used in front of children. Moreover, discussing the glamorization of unhealthy diets and topics such as the latest celebrity who has lost or gained weight can be toxic for children and young adults.
Our religion is not one that emphasizes external beauty, but rather finds value in inner strengths—kindness, chesed, middot, etc.—and therefore it does not really make sense that the latest celebrity diet trends and the idea that “thin is in” should even be discussed. By creating an atmosphere that truly focuses on one’s mind and heart, rather than body, we push negative body thoughts aside. When young women in my support group say that they are pre-occupied with negative body image thoughts, the first thing I tell them is to go out and do a mitzvah, find something to learn or a charity at which they can volunteer; I guarantee that this will bring positive feelings about themselves and who they are. When we do good, realization will dawn that appearance is not the priority. When an individual who has practiced these positive behaviors is faced with difficulty in life, he will not turn to an eating disorder, but will instead find comfort in helping others and doing good. Foster an atmosphere that focuses on inner strengths and NOT on how thin someone looks. You’d be surprised if you take a step back and look at how often parents discuss weight in front of their children and how detrimental this can be. Additionally, incorporate behaviors such as family dinners that bring the family together and assure that parents and children are aware of what is going on in one another’s lives. If you know your son/daughter is going through a difficult time, you can be there for him/her and make sure s/he does not find an unhealthy coping mechanism.
The final approach on prevention is to educate others. One popular method of doing so is to bring in a speaker to discuss eating disorders at institutions such as schools and synagogues. Bringing in a speaker who only discusses her personal experience with an eating disorder can be more harmful than helpful as she tends to discuss what she went through in detail. She talks about her unhealthy behaviors during the disorder, and all this does is give vulnerable minds dangerous ideas. Instead, speakers should focus less on their own stories and more on the issue at large. When I speak to the public, I discuss what an eating disorder is and what it is not, the connection between eating disorders and Judaism, warning signs, what to do if you suspect someone close to you has an eating disorder, and healthy approaches such as the value of self-esteem vs. body esteem. The students I speak to leave understanding the disorder and know how to avoid falling into its traps. Education is important, but there must be a balance and awareness in what should be said to these individuals.
Learn, create a healthy environment, and educate others—prevention is within our reach!
By Temimah Zucker