Jane Doe Asks: How can I open a conversation with my parents about getting treatment? (posted here first)
First, congratulations on deciding to take this important step in your recovery. It can be nerve-wracking to talk to your parents about getting treatment for an eating disorder. It’s difficult to tell parents about something personal, especially if it’s something you’ve been hiding from them, but your physical and emotional health must be the priority. Every family is different, so there’s no one perfect script that will work in every instance, but here are some ideas to get you started.
First, I suggest you do some journaling to collect your thoughts. What sorts of symptoms are you experiencing? How are these symptoms making you feel? What are you hoping to get out of the conversation with your parents? Do you want to see a therapist? Do you want to see your regular doctor? (Both are a good idea!) Writing down a short list of talking points will help you remember everything, and it will help you get back on track if the conversation takes off in a different direction.
Before speaking with your parents I recommend taking the NEDA Online Eating Disorders Screening. This quiz can help you develop a stronger sense of what’s going on, and sharing the results of the quiz with your parents is a great way to start the conversation. The results of the quiz may help your parents better understand what you’re experiencing, and they will also see that you’re taking this seriously. Once you’ve described your symptoms, it’s important to mention what kind of help you need, such as “I think I need to go to an eating disorders specialist” or “I’d really like to see my doctor about this.”
With luck, your parents will already be familiar with mental health concerns, including eating disorders, and will be comfortable helping you seek treatment. However, if your parents are less familiar or comfortable with mental health issues and treatment options, I suggest directing them to the Parent Toolkit on the NEDA website.
In my experience, almost all parents want to be supportive and are willing to learn about eating disorders to help their child. However, if you’re worried about how your parents will react, definitely tell them this in advance, and ask them to focus on being good listeners. If talking to them in person is too overwhelming, try writing them a letter instead. Hopefully reaching out to your parents will leave you feeling more supported. However, parents aren’t perfect and some are downright dysfunctional.
Therefore, if talking to your parents isn’t an option (or if you speak with them and it goes poorly), there are other sources of support available to you, such as a doctor or school counselor. Also, NEDA has a great program called NEDA Navigators, which connects individuals (aged 13 and older) struggling with eating disorders, or those supporting a loved one with an eating disorder, to volunteer NEDA Navigators who can share information, experiences and resources to help you figure out where to go next and how to get to recovery. You can find more information here.
Having big, serious conversations with your parents is never fun or easy, but seeking support from the adults in your life is a crucial step to getting healthy. I wish you the best of luck with it.
"Jane Doe" asks: Where did you go to school? What are good programs for someone like me who wants to study the sociology of mental health, specifically eating disorders and body image? I struggled with my ED for years but can now say that I've been in recovery for five years. I want to devote my life to the cause, but I don't know how. (Originally posted at Proud2Bme.com)
Once upon a time, a long long time ago, I was an undergraduate at Princeton University, where I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a certificate (equivalent to a minor) in gender studies. For my senior thesis I designed a study that examined body image among sorority women. I LOVED the experience of conducting my own research, but I wasn’t sure about continuing on to graduate school. Instead, I wanted a “cool” job, so I applied for positions in the cosmetics and in the fashion industries.
I ended up working at Abercrombie & Fitch Corporate, and then at GAP Inc. I enjoyed many aspects of this first career, but I missed the sense of excitement and purpose I’d felt when conducting research on topics I felt so passionately about. I also felt conflicted about working in an industry known for promoting narrow beauty standards (there are definitely ways to work in fashion without doing this, but I didn’t know that at the time).
And so I applied to sociology PhD programs, focusing on departments that had a strong reputation in research on gender, culture and the body. I ended up at UCLA, where I was able to work with Dr. Abigail Saguy, who does cutting edge research on gender, culture, inequality and bodies (among many other things!). It was a perfect fit for me, with fabulous training and many opportunities to conduct the kind of research I’m passionate about.
That said, a program that was perfect for me won’t necessarily be perfect for everyone. For example, you mentioned a specific interest in the sociology of mental health, which wasn’t my main focus, so I know less about programs with strengths in that particular area. However, the American Sociological Association lists a Section on Mental Health, which is a smaller organization made up of sociologists who share this interest. Their website lists more than a dozen sociology graduate programs that offer a mental health concentration, HERE.
As a sociologist, I’m naturally excited when someone expresses interest in my field, but I also want to make sure you know that there are MANY different ways to contribute to eating disorders prevention, treatment and recovery. I have friends and colleagues from all walks of life who have dedicated their careers to this cause, including: psychologists, therapists, physicians, activists, fiction writers, dieticians, nonprofit leaders, bloggers, politicians and, yes, even fashion designers! Whatever path you take, you will join a dedicated and diverse community. Welcome!
Paying mindful attention to what your body needs to be healthy is a critical aspect of loving it. Few things are worse for your health than feeling hatred towards your body, which is associated with all sorts of unhealthy behaviors.
So, the simple answer to your question is, YES, you can learn to love your body—an emotional and psychological process—while taking care of it, physiologically. Indeed, showing kindness to your body is often the first step to loving it, rather than the other way around. If we waited to be 100% in love with our bodies before treating them well, we’d be waiting a long time!
That said, I am curious to know why you think that you need to “lose weight for health reasons.” You see, our culture is quite obsessed with thinness, not only in an aesthetic sense, but in a medical sense as well. We are often told that it is impossible to be healthy at higher weights, which simply isn’t true. In fact, research shows that people who are categorized as “overweight” on the BMI scale have a LOWER risk of mortality than people in the “normal” weight category.
This finding is based on data collected on thousands and thousands of people, and it is statistically sound. That said, I’m not bringing it up to tell you that you should find a way to get yourself into the “overweight” BMI category, but because I want you to question some of the assumptions you may have about the relationship between health and body size/weight.
I’m a sociologist, not a medical doctor, so I cannot make determinations about your individual physiological health, but I encourage you to learn more about the Health At Every Size philosophy (which you can read about HERE), which contends that healthful habits are more important than the number on the scale. Below, I’ve copied 4 HAES principles, which I try to remember for my own health and happiness. Best of luck on your own journey!
1. Accept your size. Love and appreciate the body you have. Self-acceptance empowers you to move on and make positive changes.
2. Trust yourself. We all have internal systems designed to keep us healthy—and at a healthy weight. Support your body in naturally finding its appropriate weight by honoring its signals of hunger, fullness and appetite.
3. Adopt healthy lifestyle habits. Develop and nurture connections with others and look for purpose and meaning in your life. Fulfilling your social, emotional and spiritual needs restores food to its rightful place as a source of nourishment and pleasure.
Find the joy in moving your body and becoming more physically vital in your everyday life.
Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full and seek out pleasurable and satisfying foods.
Tailor your tastes so that you enjoy more nutritious foods, staying mindful that there is plenty of room for less nutritious choices in the context of an overall healthy diet and lifestyle.
4. Embrace size diversity. Humans come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Open your mind to see the beauty found across the spectrum and support others in recognizing their unique attractiveness.
Jean asks: So I choose to not shave my legs and wear boy shorts and get disapproving looks and comments from my conservative parents. How do you suggest dealing with familial pressure on gender-conforming appearance? (Originally posted HERE)
First of all, I applaud you for experimenting with your appearance and self-presentation. It’s only through trial and error (and success!) that we develop a sense for what feels most authentic. It’s unfortunate that you and your parents don’t see eye-to-eye on your choice of clothing and grooming, but I’m optimistic that you can work through this with both your sense of self and your family relationships intact.
Mainstream media images of beauty and style promote a narrow vision of what girls and women should look like in order to be stylish and attractive. Typically, the images we see present a very narrow range of body types (ultra-thin) and women are typically gender-conforming in their femininity. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with girls and women who happen to be ultra-thin and gender-conforming, but it’s highly problematic when the same images make up 99% of the women we see in mainstream media. With pressures like these, it can be hard to carve out a path of our own, one that allows us to feel comfortable in our own skin (and hair!).
But what should we do when the style and appearance that make us feel most comfortable makes other people feel uncomfortable? My answer is to consider each situation in its own context. For example, if you were on the receiving end of disapproving looks or comments from your peers at school, I’d encourage you to stay the course (assuming you weren’t breaking any laws!), to try to not worry too much about what other people think, but to speak with your parents, a teacher or a counselor if you felt bullied. However, it’s a bit trickier when the disapproving parties are your parents (particularly if you still live with them, which I am assuming to be the case). In this case, you need to consider your need for self-expression in relation to your desire for a positive and respectful relationship with your parents.
As a first step, find out what, exactly, is bothering your parents. Do they consider your appearance to be a sign of your respect (or disrespect) for them? Are they concerned that your fashion and grooming choices will cause you to be bullied or treated poorly by others? Are they worried that people in their social circles will judge them regarding your appearance? I can’t promise that your parents will be able to answer these questions, but it might be worth asking them and really listening to their concerns. Do everything in your power to stay calm during this conversation, even if you want to scream and stomp out of the room wearing combat boots! Listen more than you talk. Remind yourself that the conversation can continue at a later time, once you’ve given thought to what you’ve learned.
Once you understand their motivations, you’ll have a better sense of whether it’s possible to navigate the terrain in a way that makes both parties happy. Maybe they simply need assurance that you’re happy with your appearance (parents sometimes assume that dressing differently is a sign that you’re depressed or struggling socially). Perhaps the solution will be to dress however you want most of the time, but you’ll agree to dress more conservatively for events involving their social circle. Maybe you’ll decide to dress more conservatively when you’re with your parents, but dress as you like when you’re with your friends (this is the good ole’ “change clothes once you get to school” approach). This may be the best of both worlds, but keep in mind that this could damage your parents’ trust in you if they find out.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that they won’t be able to understand your perspective, and/or will refuse to accept your appearance. They might insist that you dress more conservatively and threaten to take away some of your privileges if you don’t comply. This will totally suck, and I’m sure you’ll start counting down the days until you’re able to start an adult life of living independently from your parents, when you’ll have complete freedom to dress and groom (or NOT groom) as your heart desires.
I realize that being flexible with your appearance might feel like you aren’t being true to yourself, but I encourage you to consider that your sense of style will likely change many, many times across your lifespan, as you encounter new trends, innovate with new looks, as you enter new social spaces and as times change. In the meantime, even if you decide to dress in a way that “preserves the peace” at home, I truly hope you won’t shave your legs, or anything else, if you don’t want to. It’s one thing to change your outfit; it’s another thing to change your body. I hope your parents can respect that distinction.