By Alexandra Prim
The first time Laura Cole was called fat, she was seven years old and it was by a boy at school. For her, that was the turning point. She was aware of her body from then on, aware that maybe there was something wrong with it, that something that needed to be fixed.
“I was a really active kid,” said Cole, 28, who is now a Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School guidance counselor and a coach of both softball and cheerleading. “I didn’t deserve to be made to feel less than normal because what really is normal for a little kid? Their bodies change so much so quickly. Extra weight on a child doesn’t necessarily mean anything for their future.”
Cole is far from alone in experiencing body insecurities for the first time at a very young age. Erika Vargas, a Boston-based mental health counselor who worked at an eating disorder clinic for several years and recently opened her own practice, said many of her patients start treatment for disordered eating as early as 10 years old.
In fact, Vargas has one theory about why media can play a large part in early body image issues.
“There was a study done in Fiji, in the 1990s, in which American television was brought over to the island,” she said. “Within [a few] years, women who previously valued their round, more robust builds began to develop poor body image and eating disorder behaviors. While I do not think the media influences everyone in the same way, or that poor body image is always caused by the media, the correlation is undeniable.”
But media is just one possible source of poor body image. Another potentially harmful source hits literally close to home for many young people.
“I think childhood obesity is one of the hardest things I deal with in my job,” said Dr. Jessica Reader, a family physician in Chicago with special obesity training in weight and wellness. “It is pretty much never the child’s fault and, by the time the parents are concerned, they [often] blame the child. Then when the changes at home aren’t made — or, unfortunately, more shaming happens at home that I can’t see — the child continues to be blamed. To me, it makes me resent the parents a little bit.”
Obesity may be a difficult subject to broach with children, but it’s an increasingly relevant one. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The percentage of children aged six through 11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12 through 19 years who were obese increased from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent over the same period.”
Additionally, the CDC reports that children who are obese have a far greater risk for adult obesity: “One study showed that children who became obese as early as age two were more likely to be obese as adults.”
While Cole didn’t experience direct shaming from her family about her weight, she witnessed another type of harmful behavior at an early age exhibited by her mother.
“I remember growing up, telling my mother she was pretty, to which she always responded, ‘Yeah, pretty ugly,’” said Cole. “She would look over at me when I was little and ask me, ‘Do I look fat in this outfit?’ Not thinking of the [impact] it had on my self-esteem.”
Despite internalizing these negative body behaviors, Cole said it hasn’t let it affect her relationship with her mother in the long term.
“That’s how she was raised,” said Cole. “Hearing my mom degrade herself, and other girls growing up [constantly saying] ‘I’m so fat,’ I’ve realized how programmed we are to self-hate.”
Cole said that she has turned the history of negativity towards her body into a positive by working extensively with teenage girls through her positions as a guidance counselor and coach.
“My mantra with my athletes and students is ‘be a woman. Whatever that is [to them], be it,” said Cole. “I never tell young women they’re beautiful or even comment on physical attributes. I focus on inner beauty, the things that make them special: their resilience, courage, intelligence, grit, compassion, love. I focus on the attributes that make them strong women… I want them to be proud of who they are.”
Vargas affirmed Cole’s approach. “In our current society, hearing a girl or woman say ‘I look good today’ feels unacceptable, whereas ‘I look gross’ is so normal,” she said. “I always allude to that scene in ‘Mean Girls’ where the friends stand in front of the mirror pointing out their flaws and expect the fourth friend to join in as if it would almost be unacceptable to not engage in that kind of talk.”
Cailey, a young freelance writer whose last name has been withheld for privacy, explained how this negative behavior exhibited in young girls helped contribute to an eating disorder she developed at 12 years old.
“When I was about 12, I put on weight,” said Cailey. “You know how you put on a little weight before you get taller [during puberty]? My friends and I used to weigh each other and I was the heaviest. I started going on a diet and it progressively got worse and worse. Then I was 80 pounds and almost ended up in the hospital.”
It took a nutritionist and extended sessions with a therapist for Cailey to effectively combat her anorexia, an eating disorder that is increasingly common in young women.
According to ANAD.org, the official website for the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, approximately one percent of adolescent girls experience diagnosed anorexia in the United States. This equates to over 200,000 young women. Additionally, anorexia rates have risen in the U.S. every decade since 1930.
More than 10 years removed from her lowest point with anorexia, Cailey still struggles with body image.
“I still suffer from low self-esteem and sometimes I still feel like I’m too big,” she said, “but I don’t lose weight anymore. In the end, you have to eat food. You have to swallow. You have to deal with what the actual problem is.”
OPTIONS FOR CHANGE
While eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are universally acknowledged as dangerous and unhealthy, the idea of weight loss for children and young adults is actually a popular way to combat childhood obesity and weight gain.
There are many programs around the country that are set up to help children lose weight at an early age, but one of the most popular options is a summer sleep-away program called Camp Shane.
The camp, whose slogan is “Learn Laugh Lose,” has locations in six states and boasts the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey on its website’s homepage. It was started in 1968 and claims to be the oldest weight-loss camp in the U.S.
“We encourage our campers to accept themselves and be comfortable in their own skin,” said Jennifer Fallon, Camp Shane’s staffing director. “We are a judgment-free and bully-free zone. We want everyone to feel like they can walk around in a swimsuit and not feel like they are being looked at differently.
“We want our campers to find things they enjoy doing while losing weight,” said Fallon. “We find the new, cool things, bring [them] to camp, and hope the kids enjoy [them] so much they want to continue when they go home. Take Zumba, for example. Our kids love Zumba.”
She added that campers at Camp Shane are active for six to eight hours every day. They also eat healthy food, and less food, overall. Fallon attributed the successful weight loss in campers, which can be seen in “before” and “after” comparison photos of children on the camp’s website, as “simple calories in versus calories out.”
A HEALTHY OUTLOOK
For her part, Cole has mostly moved past her body image issues. She now focuses on encouraging girls to be the best versions of themselves through physical activity and positive affirmations.
“Learn to find your inner beauty. Live that first and then things begin to fall into place,” said Cole.
“I do not subscribe to the philosophy that parents cause eating disorders,” Vargas said. “[But] there is research indicating that parental attitudes toward weight and dieting can have an influence on the development of their child’s body image and subsequent behaviors. Being mindful of this, as a parent, is crucial,” she said.
“That is a culture that needs to shift in order for people to move toward acceptance,” said Vargas, “let alone love of themselves.”