Q: My ten-year-old daughter recently declared she was going on a diet. She's a normal size! Then I discovered some kids at her school have been teasing her about her appearance. How can I get this under control and help my daughter have a balanced, healthy, and appropriate view of her body?
A: I am so glad you're asking this question! First, you need to know that you are not alone in your concern. One study a few years back reported that 81 percent of ten-year-olds are terrified of getting fat. I haven't seen a revised number lately, but I'll bet it's gone up. Unfortunately, children who diet young tend to struggle more with weight and body image throughout their lives than those who don't diet, so it's definitely a good idea to shift her thinking sooner rather than later.
When dealing with body-image worries, whether someone else's or our own, the most important place to begin is with the emotions that are swirling under the surface. From my own experiences with disordered eating, fear, shame, and loneliness seem to top the list.
Let's start with fear. Your daughter has indicated a desire to diet because of negative comments from friends. The fear of rejection by peers is especially intense for young girls and the simplest comments can send them reeling. But fear loses power when it is talked about, so ask your daughter about the fears she is feeling inside. Validate her by sharing some similar fears you have faced, and talk about how you can work through those fears together.
As you do, keep in mind that our fears are generally triggered by shame: the belief that something is wrong with us and that we are not worthy of love. Satan loves to suggest to us girls that we should feel shame about our bodies because he knows this will cause us much heartache down the road.
Shame may seem like a heavy concept for a ten-year-old. (I was in my thirties before I understood its role in my life!) But the earlier your daughter can begin to understand that Satan is on a mission to make her feel bad about who she is, the wiser she'll be to his tactics and the more she'll listen when you try to communicate God's view of her value.
Finally, beneath our fear and shame is an emotion we often fail to consider, especially when it comes to our kids: loneliness. My own eating disorder was both triggered and fueled by an intense longing to be known and loved, particularly by my family.