As I walked Sarah and Allison home from school, I noticed Allison falling behind. She began walking slower than us and staring down at the ground, silent. Our walks home from school usually involved nothing but talking and laughter, but today was different. She was usually the chatty one. I asked her what was wrong, but she brushed me off saying she was just tired.
The next day, I happened to arrive at their elementary school early. Allison and her group of fifth grade friends giggled and gossiped as we waited for Sarah. I normally wasn’t present to hear their conversations. Once I heard the words like “diet” and “bikini body,” I started to pay close attention. Allison’s friends then proceeded to ask her what diets she was going to try before the start of summer, telling her that her body definitely wasn’t “bikini body” ready. I was speechless as they flashed their stomachs, turning to show every angle. It was then when I understood why Allison just wanted to shut down.
I had been nannying Sarah and Allison for as long as I could remember, along with other families who had children who were friends with Sarah and Allison. Summer of 2014 was different, though. I had just finished treatment for my eating disorder. When I sat down with all of the parents to discuss my treatment and recovery, they all agreed that I was not allowed to discuss eating disorders with their children. Of course, the girls noticed my change in appearance and my obvious absence for a few months, so why wasn’t I allowed to address their questions?
These parents were afraid that, by talking about eating disorders, their children would be scared, confused, or encouraged to try dangerous behaviors. I stayed silent, obliging by the parents’ wishes, deflecting questions, or changing the subject whenever necessary. But from what I started to see over those next few months heading into summer, Allison was developing an eating disorder of her own.
I had always related to Allison in many ways. We both hit our growth spurt early on. When I was in fifth grade, I was taller than most of the boys and heavier than most of the girls. I went through puberty earlier than all of my friends, just like Allison. It’s difficult to be the one to hit puberty early or even late, because it allows for feelings of awkwardness and being out of place. But at the tender age of eleven, why were her friends so consumed with diets and body image? Was it society and the media’s portrayal of the thin ideal? Or was it their parents who refused to talk about body image and eating disorders?
I think in this case, it was a combination of the two. Because of their parents’ refusal to talk about eating disorders or positive body image, it allowed Allison’s friends to pick apart her body, scrutinize her, and make her feel ashamed of her body type, because her friends didn’t know any better. Also, because of the thin ideal portrayed so much in the media, these girls look up to those who promote a specific standard of the beauty ideal, and they soon begin to believe everyone has to fall into that category.
It wasn’t until a later conversation I had with Allison where I realized I should have never kept silent about my own struggles and experiences. She approached me one day with a simple question: was it worth it, being thin? That’s when I told her about my story and eating disorders. I explained to her, that in my case, striving for an unattainable beauty ideal only lead to a life filled with unhappiness and misery. We can’t base our self-worth, intelligence, or work ethic on our shape and size. I told her that every body is a bikini body, even hers.
What I saw after that day was that a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. Unfortunately, girls are developing eating disorders at younger and younger ages, and if no one is willing to discuss the harms of eating disorders and body-shaming, then how are the rates supposed to change? Eating disorders and body image are subjects to be discussed no matter how young, because we want our next generation to feel comfortable asking questions, fighting the stigma and stereotypes, and understanding the seriousness behind eating disorders.
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.
Anna Kilar is a student at Loyola University Chicago studying health systems management. Anna was a Proud2Bme volunteer, and she is passionate about raising awareness for eating disorders, promoting body positivity, and learning about ways to increase access and quality of care for mental health.